Research Spotlights September 2017

Research Spotlights September 2017

Father loss impacts children’s DNA

Loss of a father (including by death, incarceration or divorce/separation) in childhood has been associated with many health and behavior related outcomes for youth, but the underlying biological processes are not well understood. A new study by NICHD-funded researchers examines this link at the cellular level by considering the role of telomeres: protective “caps” at the end of chromosomes that have been linked with stress-induced biological aging.

The study used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study a racially diverse birth cohort study of primarily low-income children born in large US cities between 1998 and 2000. Results indicate that father loss was associated with shorter telomere length at age 9 regardless of type of loss.  Death of a father had the greatest impact on telomere length resulting in telomeres that were 16% shorter. No differences were found by race/ethnicity or by age at loss. The impacts were greater for boys (40%) and for children with the most reactive alleles of the serotonin transporter gene (90%). For father loss resulting from separation/divorce, this link was primarily explained by income loss.

These results are among the first to show a direct biological link between childhood father loss and long-term health and well-being. As such it demonstrates the critical importance of fathers in child development and points to opportunities for intervention and support.

Mitchell C, McLanahan S, Schneper L, Garfinkel I, Brooks-Gunn J, Notterman D.  2017. Father loss and child telomere length. Pediatrics 140(2): e20163245.

Physical activity levels impact lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease but not cancer

A new study by NHLBI and NCI funded researchers sought to determine the link between weekly physical activity levels according to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and lifetime risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease or cancer.

The study followed over 12,000 individuals from four US communities who were part of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study. The individuals were ages 45-64 at baseline, primarily Caucasian or African American and were followed from 1987 until 2012. Participants self-reported their weekly level of physical activity at the start of the study and several other related risk factors throughout the study.

Results indicate that the lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease for both men and women was between 7 and 12 percent higher among those at the “poor” vs. the “recommended” levels of physical activity. These associations held across all ages and racial groups and regardless of rates of smoking or healthy dietary intake. Yet, lifetime risk of cancer did not differ based on physical activity levels for men or women. These results provide further support for the importance of implementing behavioral interventions to increase physical activity to recommended levels and thus decrease risk for heart and related diseases.

Kubota Y, Evenson KR, Maclehose RF, Roetker NS, Joshu CE, Folsom AR. 2017. Physical activity and lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Med Sci Sports Exerc 49(8): 1599-1605.

Food environments displayed on social media are associated with state-level health outcomes

Research has demonstrated that food environments are associated with health behaviors and chronic disease at the community level, however, social media remains a relatively unexplored source of such data.  In an innovative new study, NIEHS funded researchers constructed a national database of food environment indicators from Twitter and Yelp data and examined its relationship to state level health outcomes.

Researchers collected a random sample of food-related tweets produced nationwide for one year, linked them to location and coded them for a variety of nutrition-related descriptors. The researchers also identified the top 20 restaurants based on Yelp ratings for a particular location over a three-month period and sorted them into themes. State level mortality, disease, health behavior data were obtained from existing sources.

Tweets and Yelp characteristics descriptive of higher caloric density were related to higher state level mortality, prevalence of chronic diseases (e.g., diabetes) and poorer self-rated health. Higher mentions of alcohol and increased rates of bar/pub listings were related to higher state levels of binge-drinking but lower mortality. This study demonstrates that social media data can provide important information about food-related social norms and preferences that are meaningfully associated with state-level mortality, health behavior and chronic condition information.

Nguyen QC, Meng H, Li D, Kath S, McCullough M, Paul D, Kanokvimankul P, Nguyen TX, Li F. 2017. Social media indicators of the food environment and state health outcomes. Public Health 148: 120-8.

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