University of Georgia

Exploring health risks of poverty, racial discrimination

photo of Regents’ Professor Gene Brody
Regents’ Professor Gene Brody (Photo by Amy Ware)

Growing up in poverty and experiencing racial discrimination can affect physical health,and researchers at the University of Georgia have been awarded a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore how.

Building on previous research in this area, the grant establishes a P50 Research Center of Excellence led by Gene Brody, a Regents’ Professor in the Owens Institute for Behavioral Research and director of the Center for Family Research. Brody and his team will continue their work studying rural Black families, the challenging circumstances they experience, and the health disparities that result.

Growing up in poverty is a powerful variable that forecasts all facets of development— particularly health—throughout a person’s life, according to Brody’s research. In the United States, he said, 20% of all children live near or below the poverty line, and the figures are higher for rural Black youth, whose poverty rates hover around 50%.

Life span differences

“Because many Black children live in economic hardship, they’re at elevated risk for health problems across their life span,” said Brody, principal investigator for the grant. “They are more likely to have shorter life spans than white residents who grow up in the same places.”

Brody’s team, which includes co-investigators from UGA and Northwestern University, will build on 15 years of research funded by previous NIH Center of Excellence awards to advance next-generation research of risk, resilience and health among Black young people living in the southeastern United States.

The grant will fund studies to address three questions:

  • How does economic hardship affect the immune system and the functioning of brain circuits that influence health and well-being?
  • Can prevention programs protect Black youth from the deleterious effects of poverty and racial discrimination on their immune systems and neural circuitries?
  • How are health risks in the immune system and in the brain transmitted across three generations, and what shields children from the transmission of health risks from one generation to another?

It will also provide a mentoring program for early career scientists, who will work with more experienced researchers from prevention science, neuroscience, health psychology/immunology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology and biological anthropology. The center will serve as a national resource for several groups: Black families who want to shield their children and adolescents from the health effects of stress; scientists interested in studying health disparities; and public health practitioners who are developing prevention programs for young people.

At UGA, co-investigators for the P50 grant include Steven Beach, professor in psychology and CFR co-director; Brett Clementz, professor in psychology; Katherine Ehrlich, assistant professor in psychology; Steven Kogan, Athletic Association Professor of Human Development; and Lawrence Sweet, Gary R. Sperduto Professor in Clinical Psychology.

Additional co-investigators include Edith Chen, Tom McDade, Greg Miller, Robin Nusslock and Todd Parrish, all at Northwestern University, and Michael Windle at Emory University.

The Center for Family Research was founded 35 years ago to bring together scholars from diverse disciplines to explore innovative and dynamic ways of examining family life. Scientists at CFR conduct basic research involving rural Black families and children to understand why many families and children are resilient despite living in very challenging conditions.

“We take that information and use it to inform the development of prevention programs for rural Black children and youth and their families,” Brody said. “These programs that we’ve tested in randomized clinical trials and have shown to be effective are now being disseminated around the nation. Families from Harlem, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Pittsburgh, Selma, Mobile and places in between are participating in these prevention efforts.”

The center’s Strong African American Families Healthy Adults Projects began collecting data from nearly 500 Black children living in the rural Southeast in 2008 and has followed up with these children as they entered young adulthood, focusing on self-regulation, physical health and substance use patterns. Recent research has included biological markers and identified what Brody calls “skin-deep resilience”—high functioning on the surface that masks the deterioration of physical health, including a higher propensity for risk factors that predict heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer later in life.

CFR receives support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, among others.