The psychiatry of ethnicity and age

Brooklyn is now a hub of research in ethnogerontology, "an umbrella name for assorted activities involving minority aging," explains Carl Cohen, M.D., professor of psychiatry and chief of SUNY Downstate's Division of Geriatric Psychiatry.

He and Carol Magai, Ph.D., a psychologist at Long Island University, are working to establish a Center for Ethnic Studies to better define how the interplay of culture and age affects mental health. Drs. Cohen and Magai were recently awarded a $540,000 Career Leadership Award from the National Institute on Aging to support their research.

"We're unique because we're dedicated to examining how cultural differences influence the aging process," says Dr. Magai. This is an important public health issue for Brooklyn, since the borough's fastest-growing adult group is the ethnic population over 65.

"Our aim is to develop research related to older minority persons, for whom almost no data exist on mental disorders, like schizophrenia," adds Dr. Cohen. Because psychiatric research seldom includes minorities, he believes the work of the Center for Ethnic Studies will have important implications for the mental health and well-being of the black community, locally and nationally.

"Our ability to tap into often-ignored differences within the African-American community is very unusual. Between American- and Caribbean-born blacks, we can sometimes identify what's genetic versus social in etiology," says Dr. Cohen.

The Center will work in tandem with Downstate's clinical program, the Brooklyn Alzheimer's Disease Assistance Center, which has a patient base that is largely black and Latino. It will also incorporate research from projects such as the nearly completed five-year study of depression and anxiety among African-American residents 55 and older, conducted by Drs. Cohen and Magai with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the New York State Department of Health. Senior faculty, such as Suzanne Mirra, M.D., Downstate's new chair of pathology who is nationally known for her work on Alzheimer's, will support the centers activities by running seminars and mentoring graduate students and faculty, as well as conducting research.

The interdisciplinary National Institute of Aging grant will expand faculty training at both institutions. Dr. Magai hopes to attract master's degree students in psychology and offer research preceptorships to faculty members interested in aging. A summer institute will offer courses and certification in aging, ethnogerontology, and delivery of culturally sensitive health care.

Dr. Carl Cohen, chief of geriatric psychiatry, has received a $540,000 grant to study minority aging.


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