MSU psychologist awarded $2.18 million to investigate social connectedness and health in Blackfeet community

BOZMANN – Long before “social distancing” became a household phrase, researchers noted that isolation can increase an individual’s risk of developing mental health disorders and chronic disease. Conversely, having a larger and more diverse social network can protect against depression and even physical risk factors such as high blood pressure.

Few studies of this kind have been conducted among the American Indian population, which faces large disparities in mental and physical health and lower average Life expectancy, particularly in Montana. Center for Health Justice for American Indians and the Countryside, or Cairo.

Michigan State University photo by Kelly Gorham

Neha John Henderson, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Montana State University and an investigator at the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity.

“Blackfeet community members and stakeholders have long believed that the main resilience factor for their community is social connectedness,” said John Henderson. “They acknowledge that social connectedness has diminished over time in their community, but believe that efforts to restore and increase connectedness can have an enormous positive impact on the health of their people.”

Earlier this month, John Henderson received a $2.18 million, four-year grant from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, part of the National Institutes of Health, to investigate the dynamic relationships between social connectedness and health risk factors in American Indians who live on, she said. The Black Feet Reservation – the first comprehensive multi-year study of its kind.

“If we can demonstrate an association between social connectedness and improved health in this community, we can develop culturally appropriate ways to enhance connectedness, and thus improve health in this vulnerable population,” she said.

Over a two-year period, John Henderson and her team will examine long-term changes in indicators of mental and physical health and social connectedness among 280 adults in Blackfeet custody, where she has worked with local research partners since 2016. John-Henderson posits that positive changes in social networks — such as increased reports About Positive Social Interactions and Social Relationships – Will correlate with improvements in sleep quality, mental health, levels of immune system proteins and markers of cardiac metabolism as measured in blood samples.

The study will also look at the short-term effects of daily social interaction on health. Participants would report positive and negative social interactions six times a day using a mobile app, while a wrist-worn device during the same two-week period would measure activity and sleep. The surveys will assess the mental state of the participant. John Henderson believes that more frequent social interactions and greater reports of social bonding will be associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as increased sleep duration and optimal sleep quality.

“In addition to understanding the long-term correspondence between social connectedness and health, it is important to understand more of the immediate effects of social connectedness on health-related outcomes as they emerge in everyday life in our actual environments,” she said.

The data will be collected at Black Feet Community College in Browning, where John Henderson has worked with Betty Henderson Matthews faculty and student research interns for the past five years. Henderson Matthews will oversee the college’s research activities with the assistance of the project coordinator and Blackfeet Community College students. Analysis of the blood samples will be performed by the vital signs core laboratory in Cairo on the Michigan State University campus.

Jason Carter, Michigan State University vice president for research, economic development and graduate education and an expert in sleep and cardiovascular disease, said the study will address new and timely questions that have been amplified by COVID-19.

“Social connectedness is an important and fundamental component within tribal societies,” said Carter, who will serve as the study’s co-investigator. “The COVID-19 pandemic has only enhanced the value of social interactions, even in modified and attenuated ways. This partnership with the Blackfeet community will greatly advance our understanding of the complex relationships between social connectedness, mental health, sleep, and cardiovascular health in ways that will help tribal communities better prepare for pandemics and adversity In the future “.

In her preliminary work on Blackfeet confinement, including two CAIRHE-funded pilot studies from 2017 to 2019, John-Henderson has found that community connectedness appears to offset physiological risks of disease, particularly among individuals who experienced high levels of early trauma life. Meanwhile, feelings of loneliness and perceptions of poor social contact were associated with greater anxiety and depression.

A separate study by CAIRHE found that frequency of positive social interactions was inversely related to blood pressure, and average social bonding was inversely related to levels of immune system inflammation. Adults who reported more loneliness during a one-week period also had worse sleep during that period.

These studies and work conducted in the John Henderson Laboratory of Stress, Adversity, Resilience and Health at Michigan State University indicate that the nature of an individual’s social environment may have a greater impact on health among at-risk populations than in others, she said.

“High levels of inflammatory markers, elevated levels of depression and anxiety, high blood pressure and poor sleep quality are all risk factors for higher levels of chronic disease in American Indian adults,” said Dr. Alexandra Adams, CAIRHE director and co-investigator. In the new study. “Preliminary research suggests that social connectedness may be a resilience factor that promotes better health and well-being in this community. We are excited that the findings of a larger new study could lead to innovative Blackfeet programs and traditional teachings that promote community cohesion for better health.”

John Henderson is the third CAIRHE investigator to receive a multi-year, multi-million dollar NIH grant since the center was founded in 2014. Elizabeth Rink of the Department of Health and Human Development received one in 2018, while Monica Squeeze of the Department of Psychology received a grant. $3.2 million in grant earlier this year. All three studies use a community-based participatory research approach based on an equitable partnership between a Michigan State University faculty member and fellow tribal community.

Since joining MSU in 2016, John Henderson has also received research support from Montana INBRE and the Amerindian/Alaska Native Clinical and Translational Research Program. Its new National Institutes of Health-funded study will begin in early 2022.

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