Faculty Spotlight: Amanda Lehning

Amanda Lehning has neighborhoods at heart

A 2016 recipient of the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work Faculty Achievement Award, Lehning brings to the project a background in the influences of policies, programs, and physical neighborhood infrastructure on the health and well-being of older adults. A major focus of her work has been on the potential for “aging-friendly” community characteristics to support older adults’ ability to safely age in place in their own homes and communities.

One of Assistant Professor Amanda Lehning's current project provides the opportunity to link specific aspects of the physical environment (e.g., access to green spaces) and social environment (e.g., social cohesion) to health outcomes, with particular attention to racial and socioeconomic inequities.  “It’s important that research is relevant to people’s lives,” she notes, “and can be translated into policies and practices.” As a Health and Aging Policy Fellow in the U.S. Surgeon General’s office and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015-16, Lehning witnessed first-hand how academic research can have a meaningful impact.

The collaborators include Co-principal Investigator Christine Mair, Assistant Professor in Sociology at UMBC; Professor Shari Waldstein, Psychology, UMBC; and Associate Professor Eberechukwu Onukwugha, Pharmaceutical Health Services Research, UMB; along with four UMB and UMBC doctoral students.

“It’s important that research is relevant to people’s lives, and can be translated into policies and practices.”


 

Funded through a Seed Track grant from the University of Maryland Baltimore (UMB)-University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) Research and Innovation Partnership Grant Program, Lehning and her team are exploring the interrelations among physical and social neighborhood environments, psychological distress, health care resources, and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors. CVD is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the US, contributing to disability, poor quality of life, and major direct and indirect costs.  

The project combines data from the first wave the Healthy Aging in Neighborhoods of Diversity across the Life Span (HANDLS), a National Institute on Aging (NIA) 20-year investigation examining health inequities among socioeconomically diverse African American and white adults living in Baltimore City, with extensive household- and neighborhood-level data provided by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the Jacob France Institute of the University of Baltimore. This work represents what the researchers call an, “unprecedented opportunity” to explore multiple potential pathways between neighborhood environments and cardiovascular health. Among the few previous studies that have examined neighborhood effects on CVD risk, almost all include only one or two measures of the neighborhood environment. Furthermore, many existing data rely on self-report, rather than clinical biomarkers. “We’re taking this dataset and creating neighborhood measures,” says Lehning, “so that we’ll be able to look much more comprehensively at what influences health outcomes.”

This work represents what the researchers call an, “unprecedented opportunity” to explore multiple potential pathways between neighborhood environments and cardiovascular health.


 

Results will serve as preliminary data for a larger-scale NIA grant application to support additional research aimed at informing evidence-based interventions addressing inequities in CVD health outcomes, as well as health care access, utilization, and costs. The current study is a first step in a long-term research agenda to improve our understanding of the neighborhood contributions to racial, gender, and socioeconomic cardiovascular health disparities in middle to later life, particularly within the context of Baltimore, a city that has experienced disinvestment, gentrification, segregation, and economic deprivation. 

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