Heading for Health

Richard Spinrad, Vice President for Research
Richard Spinrad, Vice President for Research

A woman hesitates to leave her home for fear of falling and breaking her hip. A child, enjoying fries and a soft drink in the backseat of the car, learns habits that may endanger his long-term health. A man with kidney problems faces a future hooked up to a dialysis machine in a clinic for hours each week.

What can make a difference to the well-being of these people? So much of the research that we conduct at Oregon State University applies to our health. Surveys, measurements, observations in lab and field and the associated analyses have broad relevance for communities. It is clear this land grant institution indeed reaches out to our neighbors.

One example is a project, Generating Rural Options for Weight-Healthy Kids and Communities (GROW). OSU researchers Kathy Gunter and Deborah John of the School of Biological and Population Health Sciences lead efforts to engage residents in rural areas in mapping community features with Global Positioning System technology. Researchers are identifying attributes that promote or inhibit people’s ability to eat healthy foods and participate in physical activity. Because those behaviors strongly relate to risk for obesity and other chronic conditions, Gunter, John and their colleagues are using the information to develop a model of environmental factors that promote weight gain. They will then work with residents to develop improvement strategies through public policies, programs and education.

In a related study, a student in OSU’s School of Public Policy and the Rural Studies Program used Geographic Information System technology to identify and analyze “food deserts” on the southern Oregon coast. Pamela Opfer analyzed food access patterns, comparing supermarket locations in higher and lower-income areas. The work explored the technology as well as the ability for community-based organizations to analyze data.

Put Knowledge to Use

These innovations in technology raise our understanding of the myriad lifestyle factors that affect our health — the built environment, education, social interactions. And as scientific data are acquired and analyzed, questions arise. How can we communicate new knowledge to the public? How can decision-makers use it to create effective health-care policies?

The woman I mentioned in the beginning of this column may improve her balance and bone density, and with those her confidence, through Better Bones and Balance, an exercise program developed through OSU research and conducted by the Extension Service and partner organizations. The man facing kidney failure may be able to get treatment in the comfort of his own home, thanks to a startup company, HomeDialysis+, which applies innovative OSU technology, was funded by the OSU Venture Development Fund and has been nurtured by our Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development.

I look forward to more of these stories. We have begun the process for national accreditation of our College of Public Health and Human Sciences. Its thrust will be to build partnerships, prevent disease and promote healthy lifestyles.

And that child in the backseat? He may just start walking to the corner supermarket with his parents and choosing among locally grown nuts, vegetables and fruits (many of which have been improved through OSU research).

Here’s a toast (with a Powered-by-Orange wine) to our health!