AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – An amount of $4 million is to advance research of a UMass Amherst epidemiologist research into the relationship between chronic stress and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other age-related conditions.

The grant renewal by the National Institute of Health (NIH) can be used for up to five years. Susan Hankinson, Distinguished Professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and co-lead investigator Laura Kubzansky, director of the Society and Health Laboratory at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, will be leading a team of researchers into the study.

“We were thrilled to be funded on the first competitive renewal round,” says Hankinson, a longtime senior investigator in the groundbreaking Nurses’ Health Study, one of five cohorts included in this research. “It’s not very often that happens.” 

According to a UMass Amherst press release, researchers have already been examining metabolites, products of cell metabolism, and blood samples. An effort to understand the effects of depression and anxiety.

“Our overarching goal is to better understand what the metabolic consequences are of chronic stress,” Hankinson says. “And then, whether those alterations link to later chronic disease. There have actually been remarkably few studies that have looked at links of metabolites and anxiety and depression.” 

The news release specifics what is to come in the next five years.

• This study will use cutting-edge metabolomic and biostatistical approaches to examine known and novel biomarkers in a population with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds

• This is to include data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), with more than 6,800 white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-Americans; and the Jackson Heart Study, with more than 5,300 African-American participants.  

“We have a number of unidentified metabolites that were strongly related to anxiety and depression that were not included in our original score because we don’t know what they are,” Hankinson says.

To identify those markers, metabolites will be sent to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Other factors the research team will be contributing to are the following:

• Add some previously unidentified metabolites strongly associated with chronic distress to the chronic distress score.

• Test the score in new populations, such as African-American and Hispanic men and women, as well as white men, optimizing the score in each.

• Further examine whether diabetes and cognitive function, in addition to heart disease, are associated with chronic distress scores.

It is the team’s hope at the end of the research process to better identify who is at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive decline.“It may also open up new avenues for prevention strategies that we don’t currently have at hand,” Hankinson says.