March 2021: Newly funded research will use biomarkers from blood to understand how childhood shapes risks of Alzheimer's and other dementias

March 2, 2021

The University of Minnesota announced today it will begin collecting blood samples from a diverse sample of 25,520 people around the country to better understand how early-life conditions and experiences shape later-life risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

The research, supported by $14.2 million in new funding from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), adds a new component to the ongoing $28.4 million High School & Beyond (HS&B) cohort study and builds upon a $500,000 pilot study funded by the Alzheimer’s Association in 2020.
The project, based at the University’s Minnesota Population Center (MPC), brings together an interdisciplinary team of leading neurologists, sociologists, education scientists, neuropathologists, and survey methodologists from around the country. A goal of the newly-funded component of the project is to understand the biological pathways through which health inequities in cognitive impairment form.

“There is growing evidence that racial/ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities in rates of late-life dementia have roots in inequalities in educational opportunities and experiences, childhood economic circumstances, and other early-life conditions,” said grant principal investigator Dr. John Robert Warren, professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts, HS&B project co-director, and MPC director. “This new component of the project will help us better understand the ways in which these early life inequalities ‘get under the skin’ to impact cognition down the road.”
The research team will collect blood samples from over 25,000 surviving members of the HS&B cohort—a nationally representative group of people who have been interviewed on several occasions since they were high school students in 1980—to look for markers of neuropathology that are evident in blood years before people show signs of dementia. While HS&B panelists will be in their late 50s when samples are collected, and Alzheimer's disease is rare at this age, milder forms of cognitive impairment are likely to be more common among the cohort and may foreshadow the later development of more serious impairments. Some scientists believe there are markers in the blood that indicate Alzheimer's disease years before people become symptomatic. The samples themselves will also be stored for future analysis and research. The blood samples will be assayed and stored at the University’s Advanced Research and Diagnostics Laboratory. The assay work will be led by U of M Associate Professor of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology Bharat Thyagarajan.
The biomarker data is just one part of the larger picture. Using a combination of surveys, cognitive tests, blood- and saliva-based biomarkers, and administrative data, the team will examine how social and educational disparities in adolescence lead to racial and ethnic differences in cognitive impairment at midlife. The team wants to examine how these effects manifest over the course of a person’s life and how educational and social advantages may help people genetically predisposed toward dementia delay or avoid its onset. Ultimately, the researchers aim to inform efforts to develop proactive strategies that reduce cognitive impairments among older people.

The HS&B project is led by Dr. Warren (University of Minnesota), Dr. Chandra Muller (University of Texas at Austin), Dr. Eric Grodsky (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Dr. Jennifer Manly (Columbia University). Dr. Ryan Demmer (University of Minnesota School of Public Health) is leading the microbiome portion of the study.

Alzheimer’s disease, an irreversible brain disorder that slowly inhibits memory and thinking skills, is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association. About 5.8 million Americans are currently living with the disease, and that number is projected to grow to nearly 14 million by 2050. Worldwide, approximately 50 million people live with some form of dementia. 
Population health research is a primary focus of MPC, a University-wide center that supports interdisciplinary population dynamics research. MPC provides an intellectual home and a high level of research support to roughly 200 faculty, staff, and graduate students at the University. 

This research is supported by the National Institute On Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01AG058719.

See the University of Minnesota's press release >

January 2021: Examining associations between poor marital functioning and stress eating behaviors that exacerbate weight gain

Stress eating contributes to being overweight. MPC Member Chalandra Bryant’s new project addresses the need for a shift in current thinking about (and to change current approaches to) programs aimed at reducing the risk for being over-weight and obese. Although stress is intricately tied to obesity, to date the implementation and evaluation of obesity prevention/intervention programs have been limited by ignoring potential proximal stressors such as family relations. Outdated paradigms fail to acknowledge how integral subsystems within the family can serve as agents for promoting or inhibiting stress, which in turn may exacerbate or ameliorate weight gain. This study differs greatly from studies of weight/obesity that focus on helping families prepare healthy meals together or even exercise together. Such studies, by their nature/structure, are working with family members who have positive relationships. This is the critical difference of this study: it focuses on couples experiencing relational discord. The goal is to examine associations between poor marital functioning, affect, and stress eating behaviors. Because African American’s report higher rates of marital dissatisfaction, including thinking about divorce, and higher rates of obesity than their White peers, the project will focus on this population. The researchers will test the effect that two competing interventions--(1) PREP, Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program and (2) Virtual Reality (VR) Exposure to Nature--have on those associations. To accomplish this goal, they will collect pre- and post-intervention data about marital functioning, affect, and emotion-driven stress eating. Data will be collected in the form of questionnaires and ecological momentary assessments.

This project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


December 2020: Failing the Least Advantaged: An Unintended Consequence of Local Implementation of the Housing Choice Voucher Program

Housing Policy Debate

New research from MPC Postdoc Huiyun Kim argues that local administrative practices of managing a waitlist disadvantage residentially unstable applicants. Further, Dr. Kim's analysis reveals that among those who are income-eligible for program participation, poorer individuals have a greater likelihood of experiencing residential instability, thus compounding their disadvantage in the competition for a housing voucher. Read more in Housing Policy Debate.

November 2020: Apply to participate in workshops on people-powered science research

MPC Member Evan Roberts, assistant professor of Sociology, (with Ben Wiggins at the University of Minnesota Libraries and Samantha Blickhan at the Adler Planetarium) was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Advanced Institutes in the Digital Humanities to run workshops on building and managing crowd-sourced transcription platforms. The project brings together MPC experience in historical data with the University of Minnesota’s and Adler's leadership in the Zooniverse citizen science consortium. The workshops--to help others build virtual engagement for people-powered science--will now be virtual meetings, at least during the pandemic. Applications are open through December 9, 2020 at Researchers working with historical population and social science data are encouraged to apply.

October 2020: New global temperature data will inform study of climate impacts on health, agriculture

A seemingly small one-to-two degree change in the global climate can dramatically alter weather-related hazards. Given that such a small change can result in such big impacts, it is important to have the most accurate information possible when studying the impact of climate change. This can be especially challenging in data-sparse areas like Africa, where some of the most dangerous hazards are expected to emerge.

A new data set published in the journal Scientific Data provides high-resolution, daily temperatures from around the globe that could prove valuable in studying human health impacts from heat waves, risks to agriculture, droughts, potential crop failures, and food insecurity. 

Data scientists Andrew Verdin and Kathryn Grace of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota worked with colleagues at the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California Santa Barbara to produce and validate the data set.

“It’s important to have this high-resolution because of the wide-ranging impacts – to health, agriculture, infrastructure. People experiencing heat waves, crop failures, droughts – that’s all local,” said Verdin, the lead author.

By combining weather station data, remotely sensed infrared data and the weather simulation models, this new data set provides daily estimates of 2-meter maximum and minimum air temperatures for 1983-2016. Named CHIRTS-daily, this data provides high levels of accuracy, even in areas where on-site weather data collection is sparse. Current efforts are focused on updating the data set in near real time. 

“We know that the next 20 years are going to bring more extreme heat waves that will put millions or even billions of people in harm’s way. CHIRTS-daily will help us monitor, understand, and mitigate these rapidly emerging climate hazards”, said Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center.

Additionally, the people who are most vulnerable are often located in areas where publicly available weather station data are deteriorating or unreliable. Areas with rapidly expanding populations and exposures (e.g. Africa, Central America, and parts of Asia) can’t rely on weather observations. By combining different sources of weather information, each contributes to provide detail and context for a more accurate, global temperature dataset. 

“We’re really excited about the possibilities for fine-scale, community-focused climate-health data analyses that this dataset can support. We’re excited to see researchers use it,” said co-author Kathryn Grace. 

September 2020: Structural Racism More Deadly than COVID

Recent research by MPC Faculty Member Elizabeth Wrigley-Field demonstrates that “US racial inequality may be as deadly as COVID-19.” In an article published in the September 8 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Wrigley-Field uses historical data to estimate that, for white mortality in 2020 to rise to the best mortality ever recorded among Blacks, the COVID pandemic would need to produce 400,000 excess white deaths. Based on her findings, Wrigley-Field argues, “[I]f Black disadvantage operates every year on the scale of Whites’ experience of COVID-19, then so too should the tools we fight to deploy it.”

For more information, read the full open access article in PNAS, and check out media coverage by, Slate, and New York Times.