Researcher looks at roots of health disparities (video)

Print Friendly and PDF By: Chelsea Toledo Published: Nov 9, 2011
Kinesiology professor Kevin McCully oversees his graduate assistant, Melissa Erickson, as she prepares to measure graduate assistant Zoe Young's blood flow.

Kinesiology professor Kevin McCully oversees his graduate assistant, Melissa Erickson, as she prepares to measure graduate assistant Zoe Young's blood flow. They are part of research on health disparities that is being led by Dr. Jonathan Murrow. Photo by Chelsea Toledo

A cardiologist has returned to his home turf to study a disease that exacts a major toll in Georgia, especially for blacks.

Cardiovascular disease causes 20 percent of all deaths in Georgia, but it’s responsible for 30 percent of deaths of black Georgians, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

More than twice as many blacks as whites are hospitalized in Georgia for high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack and stroke. Whites live, on average, six and a half years longer than blacks in Georgia, where heart disease remains the leading cause of death.

Those disparities motivated Dr. Jonathan Murrow to return to northeast Georgia to do research that could improve health in the state. Since graduating from Emory University School of Medicine in 2001, the native of Farmington – just south of Athens – has held cardiology fellowships at Johns Hopkins University and Emory and now teaches at the new medical campus in Athens.

He is the first faculty member to begin research at the year-old medical campus, a partnership between the University of Georgia and Georgia Health Sciences University.

”My wife and I always thought that Athens was great,” Murrow said, “but that it would be perfect if they just had a medical school here. And it turns out, right as we were finishing our training, they opened a medical school in Athens. So it was a cosmic alignment of the stars.”

The medical school in Athens gives doctors such as Murrow access to the university’s array of academic departments, where innovative research partnerships can form.

“The advantage of having the medical campus in Athens was the opportunity for collaboration with many of the colleges at UGA in which faculty concerned with health disparities reside,” said Barbara Schuster, dean of the Georgia Health Sciences University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership.

Murrow aims to learn more about why conditions such as high blood pressure weigh more heavily on the African-American population and the poor. And he has sought out people on campus looking to answer that same question.

“In clinical practice, one question that comes up is why are some groups of people disproportionately affected by diseases, and vascular diseases in particular,” Murrow said.

Murrow’s research partners are equally interested in understanding why African-Americans face a greater risk of high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases.

“My father and my mother actually both had high blood pressure. They’re both deceased now,” said Deborah Elder, an African-American who is assistant professor of pharmacy and biomedical sciences at UGA.

“And I myself have been taking blood pressure medicine since the age of 36,” she said. “The doctors say, ‘You don’t really have a weight problem, you eat well, you exercise, but you have hypertension and it goes back to your parents.’ I mean, it’s a hereditary thing. So I think these types of research projects will help us get a better grip on that.”

Does anxiety affect blood flow?

Elder, along with kinesiology professor Kevin McCully, is collaborating with Murrow to determine whether mental stress is to blame for the disproportionate effect experienced by African-Americans when it comes to vascular diseases like high blood pressure.

So far, they’ve been able to confirm that mental stress alone can increase blood flow, an indicator of abnormality and a possible precursor to vascular conditions such as hypertension and peripheral arterial disease.

Now, using an IV drug, the researchers will alter the amount of nitric oxide – which causes blood vessels to relax – in the study volunteers’ bloodstreams to see if that affects blood flow.

The aim is to zero in on the relationship between stress and blood flow.

As Athens-Clarke County has a high poverty level, and 27 percent of its residents are black, the researchers hope their findings will improve health on the home front.

“Unfortunately, lower socioeconomic status is often associated with not eating right,’’ McCully said. “Even higher stress is associated with a less secure economic environment.”

The researchers hope to shed light on the intricate inner workings — or mechanisms — causing some people to be sicker than others.

“I think the first question in this type of study is to understand the mechanism, and from that, to identify the intervention,” Murrow said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a pharmaceutical or drug intervention or lifestyle intervention, but without knowing the mechanism, it makes it tougher to target the problem in a meaningful way.”

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