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Forging a new path: Aging researchers’ role in ending structural racism and discrimination

Patricia Jones
Patricia JONES,
Office of Special Populations (OSP)

While the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the headlines for over a year now, another challenge to our nation’s health persists in the specter of systemic and structural racism. Research shows that racism and inequity are not only corrosive to our society’s connective tissue, but also damage public and individual health.

On March 1, NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D., joined NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., and many others across our agency to UNITE in standing against structural racism in biomedical research. NIA has long focused on health disparities and the systems such as structural racism that perpetuate them, and in training a diverse scientific workforce to address these issues as part of overall efforts in advancing aging research.

In some ways, the current fight against structural racism is similar to NIA’s past endeavors against structural ageism in American society that resulted in prejudice, discrimination, and negative stereotypes for older adults. It’s also helpful to remember that NIH is devoted to increasing health equity by expanding diversity in all forms, including gender, race/ethnicity, disability, and socioeconomic status.

Structural racism and discrimination research priorities

While recent social events precipitated NIH’s pledge and brought the issue of structural racism once again to the fore, our agency’s efforts to forge a more equitable future with the help of biomedical research have been underway for some time. In 2015, the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) led a visioning process to identify future directions for research among minority populations. The associated workshops highlighted the need for additional research to elucidate how social and economic policies advance and bolster structural racism and discrimination and in turn impact the lives and health of racial and ethnic groups. Through the UNITE initiative, NIH is acting on these recommendations to end structural racism and racial inequities in biomedical and behavioral research.

Join us: Share your passion and expertise

All NIA research divisions, along with the Office of Special Populations, encourage the aging research investigator community to actively participate in the conversation and apply for funding for research projects aimed at developing evidence-based solutions to address systemic racism and discrimination and improve health outcomes for all. By leveraging the full weight of our investigators’ expertise in a broad range of aging-related research, we can provide a scientific backbone for new treatments and prevention strategies to hopefully improve health equities moving forward.

A journey of a thousand miles

Forging this path will require dedication and vision. Our efforts must reflect perspectives from diverse investigators working across all areas and stages of aging research. As one step on this journey, we are excited to announce the release of RFA-MD-21-004. This funding opportunity encourages investigators to establish a robust, inclusive team that reflects the expertise of multi-disciplinary community and scientific leaders to offer new solutions that intervene at the individual, community, and societal levels.

A framework for addressing and understanding health disparities in aging research

When planning new studies in aging research, review the NIA Health Disparities Research Framework. This framework can help teams identify and connect potential variables that may yield integrated, multi-level studies to address varied factors that impact health. Developing aging research studies that reflect the levels of analysis described in the framework can also shape evidenced-based interventions to help address, understand, and possibly end structural racism, discrimination, and health inequities.

Finally, we must learn from the past to best lead the future. Engaging community partners and building diverse scientific teams that reflect a wide variety of experiences and perspectives are critical to conducting the highest quality research and building lasting and trusting relationships.

There is significant work ahead, so we call upon the entire aging research community to join us in working toward ending structural racism and discrimination. We will strive to identify evidence-based biomedical research solutions that reflect the lived experiences of those most impacted by disease burden and the collective wisdom of our aging research experts. Visit the framework, read and apply for the RFA, and comment below to share your perspectives on how we can address this important problem.


Author’s Note: Thank you to the following NIA colleagues (listed alphabetically) for their assistance with this post.
Frank Bandiera, Ph.D., MPH, Division of Behavioral and Social Research
Lyndon Joseph, Ph.D., Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology
Ronald Kohanski, Ph.D., Division of Aging Biology
Damali Martin, Ph.D., MPH, Division of Neuroscience
Carmen Moten, Ph.D., MPH, Division of Extramural Activities

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