What’s at the root of poor health in rural Kentucky? A UofL professor is determined to find out.

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The University of Louisville is part of a new study that could illuminate the reasons why there are high rates of certain health conditions in parts of rural America, such as eastern Kentucky.

Stephanie Boone, an assistant professor in the UofL School of Public Health and Information Sciences, is heading up research in Kentucky for the six-year Risk Underlying Rural Areas Longitudinal (RURAL) Cohort Study.

The $21.4 million research project, being coordinated by the Boston University School of Medicine, will provide insight into high rates of heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders in Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Stephanie Boone, UofL assistant professor

“We’re trying to understand why disease outcomes may differ between high-risk and low-risk communities,” said Boone, the study’s principal investigator in Kentucky. “So what are the root causes” for the development of disease and outcomes such as survival, mortality and quality of life?

About 4,000 people, including 1,300 eastern Kentuckians, will be recruited from various rural counties in southern Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta to take part in the project.

UofL researchers Kathy Baumgartner and Rick Baumgartner are co-investigators on the study, which is being funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

“Within the study, we will be comparing low- to high-risk rural counties,” Boone said. “… We’re also looking at factors where there might be high prevalence of certain risk factors for disease. For instance, areas that have a higher prevalence of obesity, diabetes and smoking prevalence as well as unique environmental exposures.”

Researchers will use a mobile unit to go into areas and conduct baseline exams. They’ll also be obtaining information, such as medical and family history, collecting blood specimens and inquiring about lifestyle and behavior.

Smart phones and activity trackers will help with monitoring. The trackers will evaluate things like exercise, sleep and heart rate, Boone said. Also, “we have a mobile app where we can actually push questions to people about their health and they can answer the questions,” she added.

Because the study is still in its developmental stages, Boone declined to identify which counties will be involved. But before participants are enrolled, “we’re going to be in the communities and creating partnerships and community advisory boards and things like that” as well as employing community health workers.

The overall study is expected to involve 50 investigators and 16 institutions, such as Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“I’m excited to be a part of it because I’m a native of Kentucky,” Boone said. “We look out for one another.”