If you come across a small group of African-American senior citizens strolling together in North or Northeast Portland, chatting over an old photo or a historical landmark, they may be part of a unique Oregon Health & Science University study on brain health.
The “Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo-Imagery,” or SHARP study, is a combination of medical research, community building and black history. Three times a week, study participants follow pre-mapped walks and have conversations prompted by photos or talking points about memories of the vibrant black communities they grew up in.
The study is led by Dr. Raina Croff, an assistant professor of neurology at OHSU. It's motivated in part by the fact that African-American seniors are more likely to develop Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia than white seniors.
Croff, speaking on OPB's "Think Out Loud," said there are a number of possible reasons for the discrepancy: higher rates of chronic health conditions like heart disease, lack of quality health information, or a belief that losing memory with age is just a part of life, which keeps people from seeking early or preventive care.
Another potential factor? Changes to the historically black neighborhoods they've called home.
“Gentrification is impacting brain health for our older seniors because they are feeling more isolated if they stay behind in the old neighborhoods. There's no longer those social opportunities, those impromptu opportunities,” Croff said. “You also have a feeling of isolation if you move out of the area and you're not with your familiar neighbors.”
The group reminiscence aspect of the study, she explained, allows people to “process with compassionate peers.” Croff also said that social engagement and physical activity have been shown to help slow the deterioration of brain health.
Edna White is one of the participants in OHSU's SHARP study. She has lived in the Portland area her whole life.
She's now participated in two phases of the study. She told "Think Out Loud" that the walks through North and Northeast Portland have made her feel healthier, more social, and better able to process complicated emotions about her hometown.
“It's really helping me deal with my feelings of change,” she said. “I think that most people are so busy living a life that they don't realize all the loss that they experienced and how they affected them.”
But there's also many positive memories of childhood and youth. In White's case, for example, she recalls, “the disco days, when I was just trying to have a lot of fun and enjoy myself ... All this isn't registering until you take these walks and you remember, and you look around and you say, ‘Boy, things have changed so much! How do I fit in now? Where do I fit in? How do I want to fit in?'”
In addition to measuring walkers' physical and mental health, the study has a historical component too. Participants record their conversations as they walk and reminisce, contributing to an oral history of Portland's black communities.
“This program really hones in on the African-American experience and the value and vibrancy of the African-American communities,” Croff said. “It's really taking our neighborhood history, preserving it, and doing something active with it for the next generation.”
Edna White agrees. In digging up her memories, she said, “I had to decide, do I want to be an angry senior citizen, bitter, out marching and protesting? Or do I want to see what I can do to help the next generation, and this generation that I'm in, to adjust? Because, change is constant.”
To hear more from "Think Out Loud's" conversation with Raina Croff and Edna White, click play in the audio player at the top of the page.