Data can be valuable for informing preventative health care, providing insights into how a person’s age, race, gender, and other factors can affect their risks for certain health problems. The more specific the data, the more accurate the predictions.

When it comes to the factor of race, most existing studies place individuals into broad categories such as “Black.” But, asks Butler University’s Dr. Ogbonnaya Omenka, “What kind of Black are you talking about?”

“Health outcomes vary within the Black population, so the term ‘Black’ can be very confusing if you’re talking about health,” explains Omenka, an Assistant Professor of Health Sciences. “There are African Americans—descendents of those who came from Africa to America. But you also have African immigrants, Caribbean immigrants, and more—there is a whole lot of Black. So you need to be aware of intrapopulation differences.”

Through research beginning this summer, Omenka hopes to build a clearer picture of those health differences when it comes to sleep. The first phase of his research focuses on African immigrants in the United States. This initial study is funded by a grant for more than $10,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which Omenka received as part of the NIH’s PRIDE program. PRIDE (Programs to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health-Related Research) brings together faculty from around the nation with the goal of connecting junior investigators with senior mentors. Omenka’s mentorship team includes faculty with expertise in sleep, cardiovascular health, epidemiology, biostatistics, and neurocognition.

“African immigrant research is an untapped area for understanding the health of the Black population in America,” Omenka says. “This really shouldn’t be so, because according to conservative estimates, there are more than 2 million African immigrants living in the United States.”

The current study aims to discover how psychosocial factors due to acculturation—adapting to a new setting—influence sleep for African immigrants in terms of risk factors for cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and neurocognitive disorders. We already know that sleep problems are more common among populations that are underrepresented or marginalized, often including people of color. Omenka’s work will dive deeper, with the goal of understanding more about how and why those differences emerge.

Starting with secondary research, Omenka is analyzing a sleep database from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) that allows him to sort through variables such as race and immigration status. The existing data were not collected specifically for Omenka’s project, so he is mainly searching for information that will help him develop follow-up studies. The questions Omenka is currently asking include, “What is the prevalence of sleep insufficiency among African immigrants?”; “Is that prevalence associated with any health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease?”; and “In the African immigrant population, are those associations also based on other factors such as age, gender, and occupation?”

After Omenka has completed this one-year project, he plans to design a larger study to collect original data based on specific questions about African immigrant health. He will then repeat the process for other groups, until he has developed a full depiction of sleep trends within the U.S. Black population—data that can be used to improve preventative care and health policy.

Omenka first became interested in African immigrant health through exploring topics for his master’s thesis. While reading about challenges with diabetes among African American women, he learned that U.S. health professionals didn’t have enough data about each segment of this population to drive effective care. That was the moment Omenka realized he had found his research path: unpacking the “Black box” so that we can understand how to more effectively improve the health of the Black population.

“It was like a bomb exploded in my head, and I thought, oh my goodness—this is my calling,” he says. “I knew right then that I found my life’s mission: to bridge this gap about the health of ‘Blacks.’”

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