New Study Helps Hispanic Seniors in Miami Fight Depression with Exercise

University of Miami Miller School of Medicine psychologist Daniel Jimenez, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has just kicked off a study that uses exercise and social engagement as a way to stem depression and anxiety among local Hispanic seniors.

Using a small army of local health promoters or promotoras de salud, Jimenez will enroll 60 Hispanic seniors over age 60, who will take part in group exercise at local parks in Miami-Dade County. His hometown of Hialeah will be one of his first stops for recruitment.

As part of the initiative, groups of six participants will meet three times per week for 16 weeks and perform 10 minutes of stretching and 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise. At the end of each session, the seniors will spend five minutes planning a future activity with a friend or family member, such as going to the movies or another enjoyable outing.

“The idea is for them to keep the body active and keep their minds entertained,” said Jimenez, a Cuban-American who has studied mood disorders among Hispanics for the past seven years. The study, he said, is a novel way of addressing mental health, as it focuses on prevention instead of treatment.

The four-year study is funded by a $670,000 National Institutes of Health grant. It’s Jimenez’s first major undertaking since joining the Miller School in June. Miami, he said, is fertile ground for studying mental health trends among Hispanic communities. But his study is also aimed at intervention and long-term mental health stability.

“By the first two sessions, we hope to see a decrease in symptom severity. By the completion of the study, we hope to see a continued trend,” said Jimenez.

Previous research, he says, has shown that Hispanic seniors in the U.S. have higher rates of depression than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. Often times, Jimenez says, they feel socially isolated due to feelings of detachment from their homeland.

“Feelings of isolation, especially due to immigration, is a common narrative among this group,” he said, adding that the claim has some validity. However, “often times, people who deal with depression are genetically predisposed to it,” he said. “It just takes a change in their environment, such as immigration, to trigger it. It then becomes an unpleasant stressor.”

Family and cultural connectivity are prominent traits in Hispanic culture, and it’s something that Jimenez knows first-hand. “To be removed from that can be very devastating, especially if you base your whole being on collectivistic culture.”

And while Hispanic seniors share similar anxiety levels with non-Hispanic whites in the U.S., Jimenez explains, they are less likely to seek mental health treatment, which exacerbates the problem.

Elderly Hispanics also have vastly different perceptions of their mental health and what causes the disorder. “You often hear ‘If we hadn’t left Cuba, my spouse wouldn’t have gotten Alzheimer’s.’” Denial and stigma, he says, are also barriers to treatment. Obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular ailments are additional risk factors for depression that are also prevalent among Hispanic seniors.

The study targets seniors who have not yet crossed the threshold of clinical depression or anxiety but show some related symptoms and are identified as being at risk.

Upon recruitment, participants will take a brief questionnaire that assesses their level of community involvement, social support, physical activity, ability to do activities and self-confidence. They will be reassessed with the same questionnaire after six months and a year later.

“The goal is to intervene before the water really gets over their heads and they’re really depressed and not seeking treatment,” said Jimenez.

For more information on the study, contact Dr. Daniel Jimenez at 305-355-9063 or .