Healthy Weight Week: Columbia Mailman School’s Initiatives on Obesity Prevention

January 21, 2016

Mailman School faculty continues to generate scientific knowledge on obesity through the schoolwide Obesity Prevention Initiative which puts a special emphasis on prevention. Andrew Rundle, DrPH, associate professor of Epidemiology and Heather Greenlee, PhD, ND, assistant professor of Epidemiology,  lead this initiative with a goal of producing position papers and a vision for more effective strategies for obesity prevention.  Read more about the Obesity Prevention Initiative on the Mailman School website.

Research Round-up

Urban+Health Initiative and Interdisciplinary Built Environment and Health Research Group
Mailman School researchers are evaluating the role that neighborhood businesses play in affecting individual dietary intake and physical activity patterns in preventing cardiovascular disease through their products and services. The researchers, led by Gina Lovasi, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology and co-director of the Mailman School’s Urban and Health Initiative, received RO1 funding from the National Institute of Aging. They will conduct a longitudinal investigation of more than 50 million metropolitan area businesses using 25 years of data to characterize changes in neighborhoods in terms of the retail food environment and access to physical activity venues nationally, and to evaluate the implications of those changes for population health. Read more about the school-wide Urban+Health Initiative and interdisciplinary Built Environment and Health Research Group.

Neighborhood Social Environment Is Critical in Obesity Prevention
Numerous built environment characteristics including the lack of green spaces, higher number of fast food restaurants, and low walkability indices have been studied in relation to an increased risk of development and prevalence of obesity. Equally important but less extensively studied is the link between the neighborhood social environment and obesity among both adults and children. Research led by Shakira Suglia, ScD, assistant professor of Epidemiology, highlights the evidence and potential pathways of this association, and proposes intervention on the neighborhood social environment as an effective target for the prevention on obesity.

Childhood Obesity May Be at a Plateau
Sally Findley, PhD, professor of Population and Family Health and Sociomedical Sciences, is hopeful that childhood obesity, on the rise for years, may finally be leveling off. One good sign: in 2015, the government expanded funding for Head Start, giving tens of thousands of additional infants and toddlers access to healthy foods and physical activity programs. Research by Dr. Findley showed that changes in 2009 to the federal nutrition program WIC -- which reaches half of all American children and encourages breastfeeding and consumption of vegetables and whole grains, were successful in New York State. Crucially, WIC children who were breastfed and ate healthful diets were more likely to maintain a normal weight, a finding that suggests the nutrition program is an important part of moving the needle on childhood obesity.

Measuring Physical Activity
Jeff Goldsmith, PhD, assistant professor of Biostatistics, and colleagues are developing new statistical methods to analyze data from physical activity monitors using function data analysis approaches.  These approaches can identify differences in patterns of activity across the time course of a day that are associated with risk factors such as whether a child has asthma.  Rather than aggregating the rich data that are captured by activity monitors as a single summary variable, functional data analysis approaches treat the minute-by-minute activity data as reflecting a complex behavior that varies within an individual throughout the day and varies between individuals.

Grant News
The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health was recently refunded as a P50 Center by the NIEHS and EPA with a focus on understanding the links between prenatal exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAH] in air pollution, trajectories of neurodevelopment and body size from early childhood to age 18, and risk for obesity at age 18. The study will also use MRI brain scan data collected when the participants were ages 9 to 11 to understand how differences in brain structure and function mediate links between PAH exposure and obesity related outcomes.  The study participants will have a second MRI scan at age 18 to measure abdominal fat and brain structure.
In Other News

Charter Member of AIA Design and Health Research Consortium
The Mailman School of Public Health with Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture continues its relationship with the American Institute of Architects AIA), the AIA Foundation, and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. In 2015, the Mailman School was named a charter member of the AIA Design & Health Research Consortium, which helps facilitate research and builds networks of researchers studying how design affects public health. The Columbia team focuses on how urban design can support physically active lifestyles.

Obesity Expert Y. Claire Wang Is Health Policy Fellow at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, associate professor of Health Policy and Management is a 2015-2016 Health Policy Fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dr. Wang is actively participating in health policy formation at the federal level by working closely with members of Congress and the executive branch. In her scholarship, Dr. Wang focuses on addressing the obesity epidemic in adults and in children and developing and evaluating policies to promote healthy choices.