USC professor advocates for the elderly

Photo courtesy of Karen Lincoln

Karen Lincoln’s work serves as a voice for marginalized groups in health studies and challenges. As an associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the founder of Advocates for African American Elders, Lincoln focuses on the disparities in health conditions, especially in Alzheimer’s disease, among the older African American population in her research.

Lincoln was recently featured on a list of top 50 influencers in aging for 2017 by Next Avenue, a publication that focuses exclusively on issues for individuals 50 and older. Currently, Lincoln has shifted her focus to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on black communities.

“African Americans have the highest burden and the highest risk of any other racial ethnicity in the country [for Alzheimer’s],” Lincoln said. “My work focuses on increasing access to information and education for [this demographic] — middle age and also adults — to help address that disparity.”

The AAE program Lincoln founded emphasizes health care and health information access in the African American community, especially among the elderly. The program operates primarily in South Los Angeles, where 38 percent of its residents are black, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Mapping L.A. data.

Since there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, Lincoln stressed the importance of prevention alongside treatment. Although African Americans have two to three times the risk of developing the disease compared to whites, researchers tend to focus on diseases like diabetes and hypertension among the community instead, According to Lincoln. Therefore, Lincoln advocates for awareness and education on Alzheimer’s disease to the public.

“There are various studies going around [USC] campus — there’s my work, but we need to make sure people have access to this information,” Lincoln said. “For students who might think Alzheimer’s disease only affects older adults … I think it’s very important for all of us to know … the risk starts when you’re very young. Research shows it can start as young as 10 years old.”

In her career, Lincoln’s interest in health and aging was piqued when she was a student at the University of Michigan because of her mentor’s work in those fields. She then moved to Seattle to work on the mayor’s task force advising him on the older African American population and their needs.

“I was chairing a council on African American elders … and advocating for social services for that population,” Lincoln said. “As a result of that, we established a program called the African American Elders Program, [serving] very low income, homebound, frail older adults.”

Lincoln began her work in gerontology at a young age, and she advised students to educate themselves on these diseases, even if they appear far-fetched, affecting only older individuals.

“It’s very important for us to think, as young people, about the risk factor and the prevention factor associated with any type of brain disease,” she said. “Alzheimer’s disease — there’s no cure, and it’s almost like an epidemic among African Americans. The more we can educate ourselves and share information with others, whether that be our parents, grandparents or people in our network, the better off we will all be to prevent this type of disease.”

Lincoln received her Ph.D. in sociology and social work at the University of Michigan and began her work in advocacy at her first academic appointment at the University of Washington, where she worked with the mayor to create a program for the elderly.

However, Lincoln said the Advocates for African American Elders program in Los Angeles is her most fulfilling work. The impact is direct and largely beneficial for the local community, she said.

“It’s a wonderful partnership between USC, the School of Social Work and the community of Los Angeles — doing this kind of work and sharing information,” Lincoln said. “I think it reaches the community a lot faster than if we considered a traditional approach.”