Taking a Community-focused Approach to Healthy Longevity

To keep up with the world’s rapidly aging population, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) launched the Healthy Longevity Global Competition, a multi-stage global competition designed to seek out bold, innovative, and breakthrough ideas that challenge the way we think about aging. The Catalyst Award, the first stage of the competition, rewards exciting opportunities that display prospective improvement in the mental, physical, and social well-being of individuals as they age. Dean Sherzai is one of NAM’s 45 U.S.-based Catalyst Awardees. We hear from Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, husband-and-wife award-winning neurologists and researchers, who speak to the award-winning project, Community Brain Health in African American Faith-Based Organizations.

Can you share a little bit about yourself and your team? How did you come to work together? What advantages does your interdisciplinary team bring?

We’re neurologists and a neuroscientist, and have had a profound interest in the intersection of science, lifestyle, disease prevention, and community empowerment. For the last 15 years, we have been working to better understand the lifestyles that promote and prevent cognitive diseases, such as stroke and dementias. At the Healthy Minds Initiative (HMI), our team is made up of leaders from different sectors working together to bring brain health information and research in disparities to communities. Our team consists of neurologists, neuroscientists, epidemiologists, community leaders, as well as community partners. The interdisciplinary collaboration brings the best of all worlds, from the technological aspects and research perspectives to healthcare prevention avenues and community voices.

We are especially proud of our work as a team when it comes to translating what has already been demonstrated to be effective in reducing risks of diseases, such as stroke, Alzheimer’s vascular dementia, and other cognitive diseases in different communities. We also integrate technology and telecommunication at the center of what we do to reduce impediments to care and increase access to communities that have the greatest barriers to accessing information. What makes us unique is our ability to truly listen and understand the unique aspects of communities, and work with them, rather than impose ideas upon them. What makes us unique is that we are able to not only empower, but also permanently transfer the capacity for change to the communities we serve.

Please tell us about your innovative project. Why it is particularly innovative, bold, and/or novel?

What makes our project incredibly innovative is that it takes the community into consideration at the start. Our project is the first of its type, bringing together leadership from the African American faith-based community with the health care and research world. We aim to combine the wisdom, knowledge, and trust community leaders have with the technology that can truly translate the latest preventive and brain health promoting information to the communities that need it most.

How we accomplish this is by starting with community-led conversations to understand the resources and limitations at hand and the degree of community buy-in. From there, we build a plan that is appropriate for the unique contexts of each community. In that building process, which involves sophisticated technology, the community is involved in identifying the how, where, and what of in the intervention. At the same time, the approach is also iterative and uses real-time data captured from live conversations, tech sources, and community telecommunication sessions to adapt the plan for optimal outcomes.

What inspired you to develop your project?

Our inspiration started with our own families. For Ayesha, her passion for this work stemmed for seeing her grandfather, a brilliant and proud man, lose parts of himself to Alzheimer’s disease when she was young. Every member of the leadership at HMI had lives touched by the negative progression of Alzheimer’s or other dementias. It was while working together in the clinic, we saw was a model where the disease process would be identified at a stage where dementia had fully manifested, and not much could be done. The frustration was often overwhelming. Though we were trained at top neuroscience programs in the country, the reality we experienced was repeatedly failed drug trials and almost no preventive programs. Later in our career when we did see some preventive programs, we still failed to see programs that considered the community, which inevitably failed to achieve any successful outcomes. For the last 15 years, our entire focus has been on identifying the best interventions concerning preventive neurology and the best approach to empower communities in applying change models, owning those models, and ultimately propagating them forward to the next generations.

How might your innovative idea/project lead to a future breakthrough in the field of healthy longevity?

Our approach is revolutionary for health care delivery and preventive care, especially in communities that have previously been less accessible to health care delivery, preventive care, and health resources. We take individual and community tendencies, resources, and goals into consideration while using the latest technology to passively gather data, help implement change involving the community itself, and utilize live data for optimal outcomes. This is often what is touted as the future of medicine, but we have started it now.

How do you see your project advancing in the future?

The aim is to scale the project nationally, initially continuing our work with the African American faith-based community. With the right support, we hope to expand this project to more than 10,000 African American families and then grow to support other communities, such as the Native Americans and members of Spanish-speaking communities. Given our experience, technology, and approach to the communities we think we will have a profound impact on health care.

What motivated you to apply to the Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards? What advice would you have to other prospective applicants?

To us, the greatest health care challenge of the 21st century will be how we deal with the rising tide of aging individuals, and no task is more challenging than treating diseases of the mind, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias. Disparities in health and health care are especially overwhelming for communities of color. This award allowed us to look at this problem in an innovative way, as past efforts have not shown success at preventative and community-centered health.

Has this award changed your perspective on what healthy longevity looks like?

This award has changed our perspective on the possibility of doing research and health care delivery in the right way and with a different, more realistic perspective. It has also changed our perspective on potentially scaling this approach nationally and given us hope that there are others looking at more meaningful ways to transform community-level health care.

Dr. Dean Sherzai is a behavioral neurologist/neuroscientist whose entire life has been dedicated to behavioral change models at the community and population levels.

Dr. Ayesha Sherzai finished two residencies at Loma Linda University; preventive medicine and neurology. Ayesha completed an extensive culinary training program and now teaches large populations how to make tasty, easy, and healthy food for their brain health.

To learn more about the NAM’s Catalyst Awardees, check out these stories. For more information about the global Healthy Longevity Global Competition, click here. We appreciate your support in advancing innovative solutions to promote health throughout the human lifespan. Email healthylongevity@nas.edu for questions about the award.

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