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Updated 11:30 AM December 6, 2004




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Center on health inequalities expanding

A U-M center that studies the biological and social factors that lead to health inequalities plans to include more researchers, thanks to renewed funding of $5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The Michigan Interdisciplinary Center on Social Inequalities, Mind and Body studies such things as how the persistent stress of racism affects the body and ultimately leads to disease; how the place where people live can make them sick; and how the accumulation of health risks over a lifetime leads to accelerated disability and premature death.

The center has received nearly $30 million in funding since its creation seven years ago, including a past NIH grant of $10 million. Prior NIH funding has supported innovative studies and data analysis, while this latest grant gives the center resources to build infrastructure and involve more researchers.

"This award allows us to build an even bigger and more inclusive tent for researchers looking at the intersection of body, mind and social inequality," says George Kaplan, director of the center.

Kaplan says the extraordinary collection of faculty involved is interested in the way in which society shapes exposure to physical hazards; the way society affects how people think, feel and behave; and the opportunities people have for healthy lives.

"Stress, emotional responses, economic disadvantage and beleaguered neighborhoods are inter-related with health changes," says Kaplan, professor of epidemiology. "That's part of how social inequalities become health inequalities."

The center is marking the NIH grant with a kickoff meeting today (Dec. 6). Participants will celebrate the funding for such things as research support cores, enhancements to ongoing research activities, funding for pilot projects and a speaker series.

The center is part of the larger Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, which Kaplan also leads. He and his colleagues have documented an intimate relationship between race, place and social class, and how they influence both the heart and mind.

Researchers involved in the Center on Social Inequalities, Mind and Body focus on five primary areas:

• spatial analysis and geography, to understand how neighborhoods affect health

• the interaction between genes and environment

• how social and environmental factors are expressed via biological pathways

• the accumulation of health disadvantage over the life course

• the development of methods to analyze complex studies of mind, body and social interaction

The 23 faculty members involved in the center come from public health, medicine, urban planning, social work, geography—some 22 different disciplines in all. Kaplan says the ranks have been growing, and he expects more faculty to join under the renewed funding.

"We simply cannot understand the important health problems in society unless we break down the barriers between academic departments and work together to get a comprehensive understanding of the patterns of poor health in our society," Kaplan says. "A lot of people talk about doing this, but we're showing how it can be done, using the interdisciplinary strengths of Michigan and the receipt of this new award is recognition of our successes in doing so."

Research enhancements will make use of a large set of ongoing activities and archived data available at U-M, representing information on diverse, representative study populations of more than 200,000 people.

The Web site for the Michigan Interdisciplinary Center on Social Inequalities, Mind and Body is scheduled to launch today:

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