A research team led by F&ES Professor Michelle Bell has received a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to examine environmental health disparities within the U.S. senior population.
Using a wide range of data sets, including Medicare claims, Bell and colleagues from Rice and Harvard universities will investigate how environmental and socioeconomic status (SES) factors jointly contribute to health disparities among people aged 65 and over, with a focus on Michigan and North Carolina.
Environmental health risks, such as air pollution, can be exacerbated in communities facing socioeconomic “stressors” — such as deteriorating housing, poor health care, crime, and poverty. Some individuals, including members of racial or ethnic minority groups, may also face higher environmental health risks.
“We’re focusing on an older population not because other groups aren’t important, but because this particular group is already especially vulnerable to health problems and environmental factors,” said Bell, the Mary E. Pinchot Professor of Environmental Health at F&ES and primary investigator of the study.
Other partners in the study are Marie Lynn Miranda, Provost and Professor of Statistics at Rice University, and Francesca Dominici, Professor of Biostatistics and co-director of the Data Science Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Using statistical and geospatial modeling, the team will calculate the differences in health risk and exposure to environmental and socioeconomic factors among the senior population. They will also determine differences by subpopulation (such as race/ethnicity, age, sex, and community socioeconomic status) for associations between environment and socioeconomic factors and specific adverse health outcomes, including cardiovascular and respiratory hospital admissions, emergency department visits, and mortality.Ultimately they will combine disparities in exposures and disparities in health responses to calculate the overall environmental health disparities.
“Although it is widely agreed that multiple environmental and socioeconomic factors affect health, less is known about their complex interactions,” said Bell. “Our long-term objective is to investigate how these factors jointly contribute to health disparities in the older population.”
By identifying the most common contributors to these environmental health disparities, the scientists hope to identify potential opportunities for intervention and improved health policy.
“You simply can’t separate issues of social justice and human health from the complex and varied environmental challenges we’re facing,” said F&ES Dean Indy Burke. “Michelle’s important work will help us better understand how these environmental problems contribute to health disparities in our society — and, importantly, how we can target policies that do something about it.”
Grant support comes from the NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, whose work touches the lives of millions of Americans burdened by disparities in health status and health care delivery, including racial and ethnic minority groups, rural populations, populations with low socioeconomic status, and other population groups.