Fatness May Affect Brain Function in Older African Americans

Dr. Adrienne Aiken Morgan is a clinical geropsychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Health and Human Sciences at N.C. A&T. She holds an appointment as a visiting research fellow in the Center on Health and Society at the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University, and is also a senior fellow in the Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.

AA MorganA geropsychologist works to help older people and their families maintain health, address problems and issues they might be facing as they age, and help them live a productive, active and healthy life in their later years.

Morgan is studying the effects of adiposity (fatness) on cognitive function in older African Americans. Historically, research has shown that the fatter someone is later in life, the better their mind functions. Conversely, the thinner they are, the more cognitive decline they experience. Past research has been mostly based upon only one measure of adiposity, body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on height and weight. Morgan and her research mentor, Dr. Lisa L. Barnes, a professor at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, IL, believe this is too simplistic a view and are pursuing new research which incorporates additional measures of waist circumference (WC) and waist-to-hip ratio (WCR).

Morgan’s work adds to the Minority Aging Research Study, which Barnes and her research team have been conducting for over 10 years in the Chicago area. The over 750 African American adults in the study undergo annual physical evaluations related to adiposity and health, plus a comprehensive set of neuropsychological tests which measure competency in areas such as global cognition, episodic memory, semantic memory, perceptual speed, visuospatial ability and working memory.

The current research project, with funding over $65,000 from the National Institute on Aging (Grant #3RF1AG022018-11S2), incorporates the more sensitive adiposity measures (WC and WCR) with BMI and examines the longitudinal relationships between all three adiposity measures and cognitive decline. To date, no longitudinal study of a cohort of African American adults has incorporated all three variables, which is one of the exciting features in Morgan’s research.

Morgan will be examining how each baseline adiposity measure individually, and as a composite measure, predicts cognitive change over time. Her central hypothesis is that the additional adiposity measures (WC and WHR) will be related to worse cognitive function and decline, in contrast to BMI. She is also investigating how fluctuations in BMI relate to cognitive changes. Her hypothesis is that the more stable an older person’s BMI is, regardless of being overweight or obese, the slower their cognitive decline will be in comparison to someone with rapid weight gain or loss. If these findings bear out, the research would challenge and clarify the “obesity paradox” which shows significant positive associations between BMI and cognition.

Morgan has six students in her laboratory who are assisting her with several ongoing research initiatives.

Morgan Lab Students

Left to Right: Dr. Adrienne Aiken Morgan, Dextiny McCain, Jada Hyman, Destini Brown, Tierra Bessant, and Alexis Olds. Not Pictured: Briana Bloodworth

Dr. Morgan and recent N.C. A&T graduate, Dextiny McCain, have had a poster abstract accepted to the Southern Gerontological Society meeting this spring in Norfolk, Virginia. The presentation is titled: Self-Reported Physical Activity and Cognitive Performance in Low-Income African American Seniors: A Pilot Study.

Morgan’s research interests lie at the intersection of four broad areas: sociocultural experience, cognition, aging, and health and health disparities. Her research examines the influence of social and health disparities on cognitive aging in African American adults and has two main areas of focus: (1) To examine how individual differences in social and health factors influence cognitive aging across the lifespan in African Americans, and  (2) To develop and implement physical and cognitive health interventions to improve cognitive function and prevent cognitive decline and incipient dementia in African American communities at disproportionate risk.

About North Carolina A&T State University

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University is the nation’s largest historically black university, ranked number one among public HBCUs by U.S. News & World Report. It is a land-grant, doctoral high-research classified university by the Carnegie Foundation and constituent member of the University of North Carolina system. A&T is known for its leadership in producing graduates in engineering, agriculture and other STEM fields. The university was founded in 1891 and is located in Greensboro, North Carolina.

 About Rush University System for Health

Rush University System for Health (RUSH) is an academic health system whose mission is to improve the health of the individuals and diverse communities it serves through the integration of outstanding patient care, education, research and community partnerships. RUSH comprises Rush University Medical Center, Rush University, Rush Copley Medical Center and Rush Oak Park Hospital, as well as numerous outpatient care facilities. Rush University, with more than 2,500 students, is a health sciences university that comprises Rush Medical College, the College of Nursing, the College of Health Sciences and the Graduate College.