Brain Health Outreach Fosters Connections in Local Community

It was a cold, blustery day in March when Columbia neurologist Hiral Shah traveled to the St. Luke AME Church in Harlem to talk to its congregants about maintaining brain health, so she wasn’t expecting a huge turnout. But when she entered the church’s community space, nearly 80 people from West Harlem and Washington Heights had braved the weather to attend. 

It was the fourth time this year that Shah had visited the church as part of her campaign to raise awareness about brain health in communities of color. She says that medical mistrust, barriers to health care, and stigma surrounding dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders have led to delays in diagnosis, referrals to specialists, and treatment for many Black and brown people with neurological conditions. 

“People need information about practical things they can do, in a language they understand, to take control of their brain health,” Shah says. 

Brain Health Seminar Reaches West Harlem Community

Shah’s Manhattan outreach efforts began when she started working with Anita Parker, community outreach coordinator at St. Luke AME Church, to develop an educational workshop for members of the congregation, mostly residents of West Harlem and Washington Heights, that would provide information, in English and Spanish, about brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The efforts have now expanded to other congregations in Harlem and Northern Manhattan. 

“By holding these seminars at a church, we are trying to meet the community where they are, and we are better able to communicate and engage with people about brain health,” says Shah. 

When Shah took the mic at St. Luke, she explained the importance of staying active to increase blood flow to the brain—and reduce the risk of age-related brain diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s.  

“To keep your brain healthy, you need to have blood flow,” Shah told the crowd. “A healthy brain is important for you to live well.” 

The presentation included a demonstration from Parkinson's Body and Mind about simple stretches and activities that people can do to promote blood flow.  

To many of the attendees, this is news they can use. 

Another tangible benefit: More people with neurological symptoms are getting care. “Our seminars have made a big difference in terms of getting people to seek help,” Shah says. 


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Hiral Shah, MD, is assistant professor of neurology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.