Seminar Series Takes on Epidemic of Chronic Disease

October 9, 2012

Eight out of ten Americans will die of a chronic disease, often after many years of suffering, disability, and high medical expenses. Developing countries, too, are seeing the incidence of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rise at alarming rates. Scientific research has demonstrated that these diseases run a very long preclinical course and are amenable to interventions.

“Health in later life is determined by environmental and biological factors beginning in the womb, even before conception,” explains Jeremiah Barondess, MD, professor of clinical Epidemiology, president emeritus of the New York Academy of Medicine, and co-director of the School’s Initiative on Chronic Disease Prevention. “That means we have to take a very long view about how to intervene in chronic diseases.”

Taking the long view to prevent chronic disease has been a rallying cry of the Mailman School since at least 2009, when the issue was adopted as a strategic priority. This commitment was carried forward through the work of a School-wide taskforce led by Moise Desvarieux. One result was a white paper published in conjunction with a 2011 United Nations summit on non-communicable diseases. Mailman was the only school of public health to contribute a paper for the conference; in a case of great minds think alike, ideas from Dr. Desvarieux’s paper were later similarly proposed in a chronic disease strategy put forth by the NIH. Subsequently, Drs. Barondess and Epidemiology chair Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH, produced their own white paper, setting the agenda for the School’s initiative and outlining a three-step plan to foster discourse, cross-disciplinary research, and bring in outside experts.

A major component of this plan debuts on October 23 with the first in a yearlong series of Dean’s Seminars on Chronic Disease. Invited speakers include prominent researchers in the field like James Fries, MD, who established the public health goal of compressing morbidity in the face of chronic disease; David Barker, MP, PhD, author of the “Barker hypothesis” linking low birth weight and poor health outcomes in later life; Diana Kuh, PhD, an international figure in life-course epidemiology; and J. Michael McGinnis, MD, and Mark McClellan, MD, both noted thinkers who have been involved in shaping heath policy.

Each of the 11 seminars will include a presentation by a member of the Mailman faculty as well as the invited guest. Opportunities will be provided to faculty and doctoral students to meet with the speakers. 

“Our goal is to foster shared understanding, discussion, and fresh thinking on how to approach what amounts to a global epidemic of chronic diseases,” says Dean Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH.  She hopes the discussions will shed light on such key questions as when in the life-course to intervene, the role of prevention and health preservation, which policies and interventions will be most impactful, how to set goals and measure progress, and how to reduce inequalities and improve health literacy. “The diversity of forces behind this epidemic demands a range of perspectives,” adds the Dean. “Thanks to Dr. Barondess’ hard work, we’ll have the benefit of hearing from some of most prominent thought-leaders in the field. It’s a rich opportunity for the School and one that I hope will yield a wealth of innovative ideas.”