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UD Prof. Amy Bleakley is exploring communication strategies to encourage more diverse participation in Alzheimer’s disease studies.

Promoting healthy behavior

Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Communication research ranges from Alzheimer’s to adolescents

Amy Bleakley's research runs the gamut from adolescents to Alzheimer's disease, dental cavities to clinical trials, but she says the topics are not as different as they might appear.

"The common thread is the use of communication science to persuade people to engage in healthy behaviors," said Bleakley, who joined the University of Delaware faculty for the 2019 fall semester as a professor of communication.

Two of her current research projects are funded by grants totaling more than $9 million from the National Institutes of Health.

The newer of the grants was awarded Sept. 1 by the National Institute on Aging to Bleakley and her co-principal investigator, Jessica Langbaum of Banner Health Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, for a five-year project related to the study of Alzheimer’s disease. The goal of the research is to find ways to increase participation — and particularly diversity of participation — in brain health registries that feed into clinical studies of the disease.

Banner operates registries of healthy adults who volunteer for possible participation in clinical trials examining Alzheimer’s, focusing on the search for ways to prevent the disease. Bleakley is also working with the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Memory Center, which conducts Alzheimer’s research. 

Although hundreds of thousands of people have signed up to be part of possible clinical trials, some 80 percent of those volunteers are white women.

“Obviously, we need more diversity among participants in order to conduct research that reflects the population,” Bleakley said. “The objective of our project is to understand how to effectively communicate the importance of prevention-trial participation to men and diverse groups so that they’ll sign up in greater numbers.”

Prof. Amy Bleakley joined UD in the fall of 2019 and two of her current research projects are funded by grants totaling more than $9 million from the National Institutes of Health.

She will begin the project by examining the factors that lead people to sign up for registries and assess how those factors are influenced by race and gender. 

“Different registries require different things of participants, so we need to examine what makes people more receptive and more willing to participate,” Bleakley said.

The research team, including UD graduate students, will then develop evidence-based, culturally relevant recruitment messages based on their findings. Finally, the messaging will be tested to see if it is effective in increasing diversity.

Bleakley is also conducting research focused on a much younger group. Supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), she is examining the attitudes of adolescents toward sports drinks.

Her project, which began in February and is funded for two years, is seeking to learn how the marketing that sports drink companies do influences adolescents’ beliefs about the drinks. 

“People are confused about the benefits of sports drinks, whether they’re helpful for hydration or athletic performance,” Bleakley said. “But, really, it’s just a sugary drink.”

The NIDCR is interested because sugary drinks can cause cavities, in addition to such other possible health risks as obesity and diabetes. 

Bleakley and her research team, which began work at her previous institution, the University of Pennsylvania, are surveying a national sample of 500 adolescents. They are interested in the teens’ beliefs about sports drinks and how those beliefs may be tied to the advertising they see.

“We want to use communication science to analyze the marketing behind these drinks,” Bleakley said. “What strategies are the companies using? And how can we counter that to educate people, especially adolescents and their parents?”

The project, she said, is similar to other work she’s done involving adolescents and issues related to health. These include research focused on the media effects on adolescent health risk behaviors such as alcohol use, sexual behavior and obesity-related behavior.

Health communication research at UD

Bleakley is an example of an increasing interest in health issues in UD’s Department of Communication.

The department’s chair, Kami Silk, who is Rosenberg Professor of Communication, is a health communication scholar who investigates how to communicate effectively to promote positive health outcomes. 

She has conducted research in such areas as breast cancer risk reduction, suicide prevention and improving nutritional practices among adolescent mothers. A researcher with the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program, she studies the use of communication science to educate girls, parents and pediatric health care providers.

Joining the UD faculty this semester is John Crowley, assistant professor of communication, whose research investigates the intersection between interpersonal and health communication. He studies the relationship between communication and physiology — the way our bodies affect our communication and the way our communication affects our bodies. 

Crowley’s research also focuses on health-related outcomes associated with discriminatory messages such as hate speech, and he attempts to develop interventions to reduce harmful health effects associated with discrimination.

Next fall, another new faculty member will join UD as an assistant professor of communication. Morgan Ellithorpe conducts research in the area of media psychology, focusing on media effects on health and health disparities, and has been supported by the National Institutes of Health.

She is part of Bleakley’s research team on the study of adolescents’ attitudes toward sports drinks.

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