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UD Prof. Amy Bleakley is exploring communication strategies to
encourage behaviors that promote good health.
Bleakley's research runs the gamut from adolescents to Alzheimer's
disease, dental cavities to clinical trials, but she says the topics are
not as different as they might appear.
"The common thread is the use of communication science to persuade
people to engage in healthy behaviors," said Bleakley, who joined the
University of Delaware faculty for the 2019 fall semester as a professor
Two of her current research projects are funded by grants totaling more than $9 million from the National Institutes of Health.
The newer of the grants was awarded Sept. 1 by the National Institute
on Aging to Bleakley and her co-principal investigator, Jessica
Langbaum of Banner Health Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, for a
five-year project related to the study of Alzheimers disease. The goal
of the research is to find ways to increase participation and
particularly diversity of participation in brain health registries
that feed into clinical studies of the disease.
Banner operates registries of healthy adults who volunteer for
possible participation in clinical trials examining Alzheimers,
focusing on the search for ways to prevent the disease. Bleakley is also
working with the University of Pennsylvanias Penn Memory Center, which
conducts Alzheimers research.
Although hundreds of thousands of people have signed up to be part of
possible clinical trials, some 80 percent of those volunteers are white
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Amy Bleakley is conducting two research studies funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Obviously, we need more diversity among participants in order to
conduct research that reflects the population, Bleakley said. The
objective of our project is to understand how to effectively communicate
the importance of prevention-trial participation to men and diverse
groups so that theyll sign up in greater numbers.
She will begin the project by examining the factors that lead
people to sign up for registries and assess how those factors are
influenced by race and gender.
Different registries require different things of participants, so we
need to examine what makes people more receptive and more willing to
participate, Bleakley said.
The research team, including UD graduate students, will then develop
evidence-based, culturally relevant recruitment messages based on their
findings. Finally, the messaging will be tested to see if it is
effective in increasing diversity.
Bleakley is also conducting research focused on a much younger group.
Supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
(NIDCR), she is examining the attitudes of adolescents toward sports
Her project, which began in February and is funded for two years, is
seeking to learn how the marketing that sports drink companies do
influences adolescents beliefs about the drinks.
People are confused about the benefits of sports drinks, whether
theyre helpful for hydration or athletic performance, Bleakley said.
But, really, its just a sugary drink.
The NIDCR is interested because sugary drinks can cause cavities, in
addition to such other possible health risks as obesity and diabetes.
Bleakley and her research team, which began work at her previous
institution, the University of Pennsylvania, are surveying a national
sample of 500 adolescents. They are interested in the teens beliefs
about sports drinks and how those beliefs may be tied to the advertising
We want to use communication science to analyze the marketing behind
these drinks, Bleakley said. What strategies are the companies using?
And how can we counter that to educate people, especially adolescents
and their parents?
The project, she said, is similar to other work shes done involving
adolescents and issues related to health. These include research focused
on the media effects on adolescent health risk behaviors such as
alcohol use, sexual behavior and obesity-related behavior.
Bleakley is an example of an increasing interest in health issues in UDs Department of Communication.
The departments chair, Kami Silk, who is Rosenberg Professor of
Communication, is a health communication scholar who investigates how to
communicate effectively to promote positive health outcomes.
She has conducted research in such areas as breast cancer risk
reduction, suicide prevention and improving nutritional practices among
adolescent mothers. A researcher with the Breast Cancer and the
Environment Research Program, she studies the use of communication
science to educate girls, parents and pediatric health care providers.
Joining the UD faculty this semester is John Crowley, assistant
professor of communication, whose research investigates the intersection
between interpersonal and health communication. He studies the
relationship between communication and physiology the way our bodies
affect our communication and the way our communication affects our
Crowleys research also focuses on health-related outcomes associated
with discriminatory messages such as hate speech, and he attempts to
develop interventions to reduce harmful health effects associated with
Next fall, another new faculty member will join UD as an assistant
professor of communication. Morgan Ellithorpe conducts research in the
area of media psychology, focusing on media effects on health and health
disparities, and has been supported by the National Institutes of
She is part of Bleakleys research team on the study of adolescents attitudes toward sports drinks.
Article by Ann Manser; illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published Oct. 16, 2019