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In 2021, the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) awarded three planning grants of approximately $5,000 each to researchers pursuing projects in health promotion and disease prevention.

The planning grant initiative, now in its third year, was created to foster new research partnerships with faculty from across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The grants support research projects that use a community engagement approach to address the causes of disease, disability, injury, or death in populations experiencing health disparities.

Funding from the grants allows researchers to complete pilot projects or collect preliminary data that may help them apply for further funding from public and philanthropic organizations to complete their research.

The projects that received funding this year are:

  • “Pilot Study Assessing Mental Health Symptom Burden and Adoption of Secondary Prevention Measures After Myocardial Infarction,” by Montika Bush, PhD, assistant professor at the UNC School of Medicine
  • “Knowledge, Attitudes, and Experiences of the Menopause Transition Among Midlife Latinas,” by Yamnia Cortés, PhD, MPH, FNP, assistant professor at the UNC School of Nursing
  • “‘If You Build It, She Will Come:’ Design and Development of a Culturally Relevant Digital Health Tool to Treat Binge Eating and Obesity in Black Women” by Rachel Goode, PhD, MPH, MSW, assistant professor at the UNC School of Social Work

Learn more about each new project below.

Helping heart attack survivors with anxiety and depression symptoms adopt heart-healthy habits

Patients who survive a heart attack have an increased risk of dying from a future heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular event. Statistics show that 17% of men and 21% of women who have a first heart attack at age 45 or older die within five years from coronary heart disease.

Dr. Montika Bush

Heart attack survivors who take prescribed medications and follow nutrition and exercise guidelines can reduce their risk of future cardiovascular events and death. Unfortunately, most patients don’t successfully adopt these heart-healthy habits. Since heart attack survivors commonly experience anxiety, depression, or both, mental health symptoms may be one of the reasons they don’t.

While anxiety and depression may contribute directly to heart disease, most research studies have not been able to conclude that treatment for depression reduces the risk of cardiovascular events. Dr. Bush hopes that by looking instead at how mental health affects patients’ ability to adopt lifestyle habits, she can eventually improve health outcomes for patients.

Most studies of heart attack survivors only collect data about their mental health symptoms once, but patients’ mental health may change in the months following a heart attack. Dr. Bush plans to conduct a year-long study, collecting data about patients’ mental health and lifestyle habits multiple times. Information from this type of research could influence how health care providers approach lifestyle changes with patients who have anxiety or depression.

“We know that heart-healthy habits benefit quality of life and can lower the risk of cardiovascular events for patients who have had a heart attack” said Dr. Bush. “Patients with anxiety and depression may need extra help or different kinds of help in adopting these habits.”

With funding from HPDP, Dr. Bush will conduct a pilot study. Recruiting UNC Hospitals patients who have experienced a recent heart attack, her research team will ask them questions about mental health symptoms and their participation in heart-healthy habits and repeat the questions two months later. Information from the pilot study will help lay the groundwork for a larger NIH-funded study she hopes can shed some light on the relationship between mental health and cardiovascular health.

Creating educational tools to help Latinas navigate perimenopause

Perimenopause, also known as the menopause transition, is a period four to 10 years before menopause begins, usually occurring between 40 and 58 years of age. Compared to premenopausal women, women in perimenopause are at an increased risk for some diseases, including cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Yamnia Cortes

At 18% of the population, Latinos represent the second-largest ethnic group in the United States. But research about Latina experiences of the menopause transition is limited, and there is a lack of menopause education resources specifically designed for Latina women and available in Spanish.

Compared with non-Latina white women, Latina women are also more likely to experience peri-menopause symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, sleep problems and more or worse symptoms of depression.

To help close this gap, Dr. Cortes and her team will conduct focus groups to better understand Latinas’ symptoms, attitudes, information sources, and symptom self-management strategies related to menopause. They will also ask for their suggestions for what educational messages about menopause would help other women. The results will guide the creation of Spanish-language educational materials that advise Latinas, specifically, on how to stay healthy during the menopause transition and beyond.

“This project is the first step to developing culturally-tailored Spanish language menopause education materials that can help Latinas better understand and prepare for the changes that occur during the menopause transition,” said Dr. Cortes. “Earlier understanding about menopause can empower women to enhance health during this stage of life.”

The pilot study will be the first step in developing a menopause education curriculum specifically for Latinas.

Building a digital health tool to help Black women who binge eat

Black women experience the highest rates of obesity in the United States, which increases their risk for cardiovascular disease. Weight loss trials seek to reduce rates of obesity by encouraging participants to adopt a healthy diet and increase their physical activity levels. However, weight loss trials have not always included Black women, and when they have, Black women have experienced only small amounts of weight loss, on average.

Dr. Rachel Goode

One of the reasons for the high rates of obesity experienced by Black women and the limited benefit they have seen from weight loss trials may be untreated binge eating. More than 30% of Black women with obesity binge eat, a pattern of eating more than is usual in a particular period of time and experiencing loss of control. Research shows that Black women who binge eat are more likely to drop out of weight loss programs and to regain weight at a faster rate, compared to those who do not binge eat.

Despite high rates of binge eating, Black women are less likely than white women to be referred by health care professionals to seek evaluation or treatment for eating disorders.

Dr. Goode has been working to create a digital health tool specifically designed to help Black women who binge eat pay attention to their bodies’ hunger and fullness cues, preventing overeating. She hopes that by reducing barriers to treatment, the digital tool can support Black women in reducing overeating and preventing weight gain.

“My goal is to design a program that is centered on the needs of Black women,” said Dr. Goode. “So often, we have been left out of the equation. I hope this work is a beginning step to help remedy that concern.”

Funding from HPDP will support testing of an initial version of the tool and focus groups that can offer feedback about how to improve it. Dr. Goode’s long-term goal is to develop a fully functional tool that primary care doctors can recommend to their patients.

Continuing HPDP’s planning grant program

“We are excited to welcome these diverse researchers to HPDP’s network of research fellows, and we are happy to continue to support their career development in any way we can,” said HPDP Director Alice Ammerman, DrPH.

HPDP plans to continue the planning grant initiative and expects to open the next request for applications in March of 2022.

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