Champions of health equity take the field

Jakub Tolar, Neil Henderson and Paula Termuhlen at the opening of the new Memory Keepers space.
U of M Medical School dean Jakub Tolar, Memory Keepers executive director Neil Henderson, and U of M Medical School, Duluth Campus dean Paula Termuhlen at the opening of the new Memory Keepers MDT space.

As a teenager, Neil Henderson noticed the impairment and confusion among residents in the nursing home where he worked as a certified nurse’s aide.

“That was a significant challenge to cope with, and it caught my attention,” says Henderson.  

Today, as executive director of the Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team on Health Disparities at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus, Henderson leads a group that works hand-in-hand with American Indian and rural people—and their families and communities—to find the best responses to the twin thieves of brain health: dementia and diabetes.

In type II diabetes, high blood sugar levels can damage brain capillaries, causing “vascular dementia.”

“This condition requires constant care-giving,” says Henderson. And, he says, rates of diabetes and dementia are both rising steeply.

“American Indian people have about three times the rate of diabetes as the white population, and that increases their dementia risk,” adds Henderson, himself an Oklahoma Choctaw.

Dedicated professionals

A force for improving rural and American Indian health, Memory Keepers is based at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It is one of four Medical Discovery Teams created in 2014 by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to improve health and health care. Five of the nine team members are American Indians.

“It’s community-based participatory research,” says Henderson. “The community and the research team work together to co-develop a tailored way to lead people toward better health.”

A research community of equals

The team has begun successful collaborations with several tribes in Minnesota who, with their Memory Keepers partners, research ways to steer behaviors in healthier directions. Faculty researcher Wayne Warry is developing a statewide demographic and epidemiologic catalog, including hard-to reach populations. And associate director Kristen Jacklin has secured National Institute on Aging funding to discover how tribal populations understand the nature of dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.

“We need to understand the response of people in the household and the tribal community when an individual has memory loss and confusion,” says Henderson. “Reliance on cultural systems of response are important and work well. We may, for example, interweave factors like religion and cultural healers with state-of-the-art medicine to treat dementia and diabetes.

“The tribes we’ve approached and who have agreed to collaborate with us as research partners—those are signals that they find that who we are and what we do will be of benefit.”