I am driven to end diabetes and dementia in American Indian and rural communities

Neil Henderson is moving away from looking at diseases in isolation. He and his Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team study “disease clusters,” and specifically the interaction between diabetes and dementia.

Neil Henderson
“I truly do not know of any other place where this kind of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work on these topics has been done. And I can’t wait to get it started.” Neil Henderson, Professor Click to tweet

People with diabetes have an increased risk for vascular dementia over their lifetime, so by attacking diabetes he hopes to address two problems at once.

He also aims to illuminate the social, political, and economic factors that drive people toward increased risk for developing diabetes in the first place.

Driven to end American Indian and rural health disparities


The journey to diabetes and dementia

A number of factors lead American Indian and rural populations to higher rates of diabetes, and diabetes in turn is causing and exacerbating dementia. These factors include less education, lower incomes, poorer diets, and the cascading effects of stress.

Says Henderson of the challenges facing these populations: “The underlying web of social problems, including poverty and racism, produce a life of malignant stress. And that experience of persistent stress can literally convert itself into disease.”

man in nature with back to camera

A human approach

Henderson believes that fixing health disparities and reducing the levels of diabetes and dementia will require a social approach. It means changing human behaviors with a public health model that incorporates political and economic changes. And it means meeting people in American Indian and rural communities where they’re at.

“We cannot stay in our labs all day long and all night long,” he says. “We need to quite literally get out in our vehicles and walk the sidewalks and walk the dirt roads and be able to have a true collaboration [with American Indian and rural populations]—not a one-way conversation.”