Advancing our research into neuroscience can build a stronger African-American community

Healthy citizens build strong communities. 

The adage is true regardless of race or place. It is a belief I subscribe to and one that I dedicate my work in Congress toward each day. We cannot realize vibrant, safe, educated and economically prosperous communities without a healthy populace living, working and learning. 

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Yet African-Americans report poorer health outcomes and experience persistent health disparities across any number of diseases and illnesses when compared with our country’s population as a whole. And while these existing and pervasive disparities are not new, they have become systemic barriers to forging a stronger, more successful African-American community. 

When we examine brain diseases and disorders — a cause I have spent the past two years working on — the disparities are troubling and span generations. According to a 2013 update from the American Heart Association, first-time stroke risk among the African-American community is almost twice that of white men and women. Furthermore, while stroke incidence rates decreased for white Americans between the 1990s and 2005, there was no change for African-Americans. Even more startling, the death rate for black men is more than one and a half times higher than the overall death rate for stroke victims. 

There is more troubling data when we analyze African-Americans and Alzheimer’s disease. A 2010 Alzheimer’s Association study found that older African-Americans are twice as likely than older whites to get Alzheimer’s or other dementia. 

These illnesses are taking away our loved ones, shortening our life spans and inflicting an economic toll on our cities and towns. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that more than half of long-term care residents have dementia. When we couple this alarming statistic with the rising cost of long-term healthcare, we begin to understand the financial stress impacting our families, communities and our nation as a whole. 

As ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, I have been sounding the alarm for the last two years on the importance of federal investment in neuroscience and brain-related disorders. My advocacy on behalf of brain research stems dually from my committee duties and a prevailing interest in the education and welfare of our children — the two most pressing and persistent issues facing our country throughout my 30 years in public service.

By rallying public and private partners, researchers and patient advocates, I have pressed for cross-sector partnerships and cooperation toward elevating the dialogue around brain disease, and securing funding and research opportunities. In tandem with these efforts, I founded the Fattah Neuroscience Initiative (FNI), an innovative, non-incremental policy effort seeking to achieve groundbreaking progress in understanding the human brain. 

I believe reducing the health disparities that plague the African-American community requires collaborations on a greater scale. Diseases and disorders of the brain are a growing and global issue affecting as many as 50 million Americans annually, and yet we know the least about this vital organ. Heightened awareness must foster inclusive engagement, backed by renewed resources, increased funding and reinvigorated research. 

Our community must take heed of the statistics, but we must also dive deeper into the root causes, spending time with the research. No one group or set of stakeholders can solve this alone. Every day scientists conduct vital work around the human brain. They introduce new technologies  and develop new theories, knowing that one day breakthroughs will come and increase the quality of life for millions. 

My fervor for neuroscience lies in a passion to build stronger communities filled with healthier and more educated citizens. Neuroscience research is inextricably linked to these outcomes. Our mission with FNI is to explain these connections, encourage an awareness and interest in the field, and elevate these issues to a broader audience. 

We must engage now, and we must do so with intense force and resilience if we want to improve the life chances of African-Americans. Reducing — or erasing — these health disparities is singularly important to the strength and prosperity of our community. Confronting these inequities is a directive we must not and cannot shy away from. 

Fattah has represented Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District since 1995. He sits on the Appropriations Committee.