Penn trial on Alzheimer’s intervention recruits underrepresented African-American volunteers

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    The University of Pennsylvania's Institute on Aging is testing the effect of a three-days-a-week dance class on the brain function of older African-Americans. The clinical trial is a search for therapies that could help prevent dementia. (Image courtesy of Holli Stephens)

    The University of Pennsylvania's Institute on Aging is testing the effect of a three-days-a-week dance class on the brain function of older African-Americans. The clinical trial is a search for therapies that could help prevent dementia. (Image courtesy of Holli Stephens)

    Kathy Jedrziewski, deputy director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Pennsylvania, leads a study testing the effect of African dance on the quality of life, mood and cognitive ability of older people.

    She and hundreds of researchers across the country are looking for ways to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

    “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do an intervention that wasn’t taking a pill, that people actually enjoyed doing, and we could say, ‘Hey, look this works,'” Jedrziewski said.

    Researchers don’t know for sure that vigorous, regular exercise slows the progression of Alzheimer’s or other dementia illnesses — there’s an association, but that’s not a cause and effect relationship.

    “So we can’t come out and say, ‘If you exercise you will lower your risk,'” Jedrziewski said. But, she said, “We think that’s the case.”

    Previous clinical trials were small and have limited value.

    “The studies that have been done are almost 100 percent Caucasian older adults and no African-Americans,” Jedrziewski said.

    The new Penn study was designed to recruit older African-Americans. Most previous trials ask volunteers to walk briskly on a treadmill in order to raise their heart rates into an aerobic range that can improve health.

    Jedrziewski’s team wants to find out if it will be easier to recruit black volunteers into an activity that resonates with them and could be fun?

    One group of study volunteers is learning African dance, the other participants are part of an education and discussion group. Both groups will meet three times a week for six months.

    “It’s very invigorating, it’s very stimulating,” said Gracie Claude, who’s 67 and a part of the discussion group.

    She was surprised about how much she didn’t know about Africa.

    “It’s so rich with diamonds, and how the cocoa is imported, the coffee, the cashews, and I’ve been eating cashews all these years and I never knew they came from Africa,” Claude said.

    The clinical trial is a pilot with just 10 people, so far, in the Philadelphia arm of the study.

    Blacks make up more than 13 percent of the U.S. population but only 5 percent of those who participate in medical studies.

    Lots of Americans worry about participating in medical research. In a survey fielded by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, respondents mentioned concerns about side effects, safety and feeling like a “guinea pig.”

    The survey suggests that only 35 percent of all Americans are likely to enroll in a clinical trial.

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