UAlbany Researcher Awarded $2 Million to Study Disparities in Cardiovascular Disease

Faculty portrait of featured researcher Kai Zhang, Empire Innovation Associate Professor, School of Public Health. Professor Zhang is smiling and wearing a dark suit jacket, red silk tie, and rectangular wire rim glasses. The portrait is set against a gray backdrop.
Kai Zhang, Empire Innovation Associate Professor, School of Public Health. Photo provided by UAlbany's Office of Communications and Marketing.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 8, 2022) — Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with one in five people dying from heart attack, coronary artery disease and other heart-related illnesses. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Black Americans are 30 percent more likely to die from heart conditions than people identifying as non-Hispanic white.

Kai Zhang of the University at Albany’s School of Public Health has been awarded $2.17 million to study how social determinants shape biological mechanisms underlying cardiovascular disease and racial disparities linked to poor heart health.

The work is funded by the National Institute on Aging, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

“We know that socioeconomic status — things like income, education and occupation — affects cardiovascular health, but little is known about how these effects are expressed at the genetic level,” said Zhang, an Empire Innovation Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “In this study, we will connect individual and neighborhood factors — things like education, income, employment, healthcare and neighborhood safety — with genetic markers and clinical outcomes to explore links between processes playing out in DNA, and social determinants that impact cardiovascular disease.”

The genetic focus of the study is DNA methylation — a process wherein molecules called methyl groups attach to DNA and change the way certain genes are expressed. Many of our basic life activities, as well as environmental factors, can influence DNA methylation, which plays a role in aging, heart and brain health and cancer risk.

The researchers will leverage data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which since 1983 has followed a cohort of 5,115 participants to understand how social factors influence cardiovascular health. Participants include men and women identifying as Black and white, recruited from Birmingham, Ala., Minneapolis, Minn., Chicago, Ill. and Oakland, Calif. All participants were enrolled when they were between 18 and 30-years-old and have been monitored every five years since the program’s inception.

The CARDIA program is run by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

“CARDIA participants have provided blood samples as part of the study’s routine health screenings every five years,” said Zhang. “We will use these samples to analyze participants’ DNA methylation and identify markers associated with social and environmental factors that either promote or harm health. Thanks to the remarkable longevity of this dataset, we will be able to track long-term trends and changes in participants’ DNA alongside external factors and clinical outcomes.”

The team will look at both individual and neighborhood level factors recorded in the CARDIA dataset. Individual factors include things like income, education, employment, health insurance, housing instability, parental education and occupation and childhood family environment. Neighborhood-level variables include socioeconomic indicators, access to recreation facilities, parks and green space and availability of healthy foods.

“This study will help us better understand how aspects of social determinants and surroundings affect processes at the genetic level that impact cardiovascular health,” said Zhang. “With this refined understanding, we will be better equipped to tailor interventions and allocate resources — at both the individual and neighborhood level — to help mitigate social disadvantages underlying poor cardiovascular health in the U.S. and worldwide.”