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Taking on Georgia’s obesity epidemic

PHOTO BY ROBERT NEWCOMB/UGA

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David Lee Vice President for Research

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besity in America, as depicted by CDC maps showing a breathtaking nationwide increase in just 25 years, is indeed a national epidemic. Unfortunately, the South leads this trend and Georgia is in the vanguard. More than 60 percent of adult Georgians are overweight or obese and, more ominously, so are nearly one-third of our children, making Georgia third-worst in the nation for childhood obesity. Why does this matter? Because the data are clear: obesity often translates into chronic illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and diabetes, as well as a possible predisposition to certain cancers. These diseases extract a significant toll on the quality of individual lives. Collectively they amount to a huge financial burden on our health care system and, as a result, a disincentive to economic development. Not surprisingly, obesity also diminishes people’s mobility and predisposes them to injury, including in the workplace. A recent assessment showed the annual cost of obesity in Georgia alone to be some $2.5 billion a year. More alarming is that this figure is projected to increase to $11 billion by 2018, if current trends continue unchecked. Childhood obesity is especially insidious because its full impact is delayed. As more children are developing type-2 (“adult”) diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, our youngest generation— for the first time in 200 years—is projected to have a shorter lifespan than its parents. Reversing these daunting trends will be extremely challenging. It will require a multifaceted approach that integrates research, education, and outreach, and it will need to embrace issues such as community design, school and after-school exercise programs, food packaging, medical interventions, and financial incentives. The University of Georgia, with faculty experts in nutrition, health promotion and behavior, public health policy and assessment, workplace health and safety, new media, and other pertinent fields, is determined to help. Assisted by the UGA Office of Public Service and Outreach, our researchers are working to develop, implement, and evaluate obesity-prevention programs across the state. You’ll read about some of our programs in this issue. For example, earlier this year our office launched a cross-campus obesity-research initiative that includes faculty from nearly every school and college and is led by Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Clifton Baile. Moreover, our researchers are partnering not just with each other but also—through UGA’s Archway Partnership Program—with local governments, hospitals, and schools. This approach, which focuses on communities that have placed a high priority on reversing obesity, allows them to tailor programs to their own needs and resources. Designed this way, such partnerships are more effective and also sustainable. Of course, there is no single solution to Georgia’s obesity epidemic. But UGA is committed to helping the state create and implement programs for a leaner and healthier future.


newsbriefs A human pathogen is killing corals in the Florida Keys

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lkhorn coral, once the most common variety of coral in the Caribbean, was listed for protection in 2006 under the Endangered Species Act, mostly because of rampant “white pox disease” caused by the bacterium Serratia marcescens. The source of that pathogen was still uncertain, however. Now, a research team from Rollins College in Florida and the University of Georgia has identified human sewage as the culprit. Kathryn P. Sutherland, associate professor of biology at Rollins College, and UGA collaborators Erin K. Lipp, associate professor of environmental health science, and James Porter, professor of ecology, had known since 2002 that the bacterium that killed elkhorn coral was the same species as found in humans. But “when we identified S. marcescens as the cause of white pox, we could only speculate that human waste was the bacterium’s source because it is also found in the wastes of other animals,” Sutherland said. To pinpoint that source, the research team collected and analyzed samples of human waste from the wastewater-treatment facility in Key West, along with samples from several other animals such as Key deer and seagulls. While S. marcescens was found in these other animals, genetic analyses showed that only the strain from human sewage matched the strain found in white pox-diseased corals. The final piece of the investigative puzzle was to show that this unique strain was, by itself, pathogenic to corals. With funding from the Protect Our Reefs program of Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory, Sutherland and her colleagues conducted challenge experiments by inoculating fragments

of coral with the bacterium strain found in humans to see if it would cause white pox. These experiments were carried out in a laboratory in closed seawater tanks so as to eliminate any risk of infection to wild populations of corals. “The strain caused white pox in elkhorn coral in five days, so we now had definitive evidence that humans are a source of the pathogen that causes this devastating disease in corals,” Sutherland said. “These bacteria do not come from the ocean, they come from us,” Porter noted. Although marine-related activities in the Florida Keys generate more than $3 billion a year for Florida and the local economy, “we are killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and we’ve got the smoking gun to prove it,” said Porter. The team’s findings were published in the August 2011 issue of PLoS ONE. “The bad news is that bacteria from humans kill corals,” said Porter. “But the good news is that we can solve this problem with advanced wastewater-treatment facilities,” such as the one recently completed in Key West that eliminate this source of S. marcescens. In addition to Sutherland, Porter, and Lipp, Sameera Shaban of Rollins College and Jessica L. Joyner of UGA were coauthors of the PLoS ONE paper. Contact Kathryn Sutherland at: kpsutherland@rollins.edu or James W. Porter at: jporter@uga.edu

— Courtesy of Rollins College

Fall 2010

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Eurasian snowpack in autumn a predictor of U.S. winter weather

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ach winter, weather forecasters look to the snow cover in the northern United States as suggestive of how deep the deep-freeze elsewhere in the country could be that year. But a new study by UGA researchers suggests that the forecasters may be looking in the wrong place. The scientists’ paper, published in the June 2011 issue of the International Journal of Climatology, reported that to assess how severe the winter season will be in the United States, weather forecasters should take a closer look at the snowpack laid down in northern Eurasia the previous October and November. The paper was coauthored by Thomas Mote, a climatologist in UGA’s department of geography, and Emily Kutney, a graduate student in Mote’s lab who has since received her degree. While other scientists had postulated that snow cover on the Eurasian land mass has a strong effect on winters in North America, the new study was the first to narrow down the area— located in northwest Eurasia, including part of Siberia, and extending as far west as northern Scandinavia—that causes the most direct effect on U.S. winters. Critical to this result, said Mote, was that “we looked at the role of various key areas of Eurasian snow cover on atmospheric circulation, including the systems called the Arctic Oscillation and the Pacific/North American teleconnection.” 4

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The findings have new significance for seasonal climatic outlooks, which predict whether the upcoming winter will be colder or warmer, or wetter or drier, than normal. Years with extensive autumn snow in northwest Eurasia were associated with subsequent winter temperatures as much as seven degrees (Fahrenheit) lower near the center of North America. Information on such a difference, roughly equivalent to a one-month shift in climate, could be crucial for agricultural production and planning for daily life in areas known to experience to brutal winters. “The impact of this phenomenon,” said Mote, “could be as large as or larger than that of El Niño or La Niña.” Mote, who also serves as director of UGA’s Climatology Research Laboratory, led a team that in 2008 reported a dramatic rise in the melt rate of Greenland’s ice sheet. He and his colleagues found that the rate was 60 percent higher in 2007 than ever before recorded. They used a nearly 40-year record of satellite data to discover the dramatic melting. Contact Thomas Mote at: tmote@uga.edu Image (above) of Scandinavia, the Baltics and eastern Russia, courtesy of NASA — Philip Lee Williams


Georgia hospitals lag in palliative care, study finds

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hile hospitals across the nation increasingly implement programs of palliative care—a medical subspecialty that treats the pain, stress, and other physical and emotional burdens of serious illnesses—a new UGA study finds that the majority of Georgia’s hospitals do not offer palliative-care services. “Most people will have some sort of extended illness at the end of their lives, and many, especially frail elders, could benefit from this type of care,” said principal investigator Anne Glass, assistant director of the Institute of Gerontology in UGA’s College of Public Health. “But only 18 percent of hospitals in Georgia have palliative-care programs, and at more than half of the hospitals contacted the representatives we spoke with didn’t even know what palliative care was”—a finding that reflects the need for greater education for health care providers. Glass, whose results were published in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Palliative Medicine, points out that palliative care reflects many of the same principles as hospice care, but with notable differences. Hospice care is for patients with terminal illnesses who no longer receive curative treatment and are in the last stages of life. Palliative care can be offered earlier during an illness and delivered in conjunction with curative treatments. A 2010 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that lung-cancer patients receiving palliative care experienced less depression, greater quality of life, and longer survival—about 2.7 months more than those in a group that did not receive palliative care. And a 2011 study in the journal Health Affairs found that

palliative care reduced costs for patients by an average of $6,900, primarily through reductions in intensive-care-unit days, laboratory tests, and diagnostic imaging. Nationwide, palliative-care programs have expanded rapidly in the past decade. A study by the nonprofit Center to Advance Palliative Care found that nearly 60 percent of hospitals with 50 beds or more had palliative-care programs in 2008, an increase of 126 percent since 2000. But in Georgia, Glass and coauthor Molly Burgess, a research assistant who has since left UGA, found that only 17 percent of hospitals with 50 beds or more had palliativecare programs in 2010, the year their survey was conducted. Only one for-profit hospital reported offering palliative-care services. Glass emphasized that palliative-care programs don’t have to be costly to be effective. A single board-certified physician can consult with patients, their families, and the referring physicians to implement plans of care that maximize patients’ physical and emotional well-being. Rural hospitals or those with limited resources can create networks that enable one physician to serve multiple hospitals. She noted as well that palliative care should be anticipated and planned for. “Talk about it with your family ahead of time and don’t wait until a crisis,” Glass said. “Because once someone is in the hospital, things can happen quickly.” Contact Anne Glass at: aglass@geron.uga.edu

— Sam Fahmy

Fall 2010

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UGA researchers discover a possible noninvasive test for stomach cancer

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arly cancer detection may eventually be as simple as taking a home pregnancy test. That is the potential of a study—published in the March 18, 2011, edition of the online journal PloS ONE— that found for the first time that certain proteins excreted in urine might signal the absence or presence of stomach cancer. The researchers initially focused on stomach cancer because it is the world’s numbertwo cancer killer, but they hope that with further inquiry the detection of abnormally abundant proteins in urine will lead to the diagnosis not only of many types of cancer but of other diseases as well. Study leader Ying Xu, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UGA’s Institute of Bioinformatics, his UGA colleagues Juan Cui and David Puett, and collaborators at China’s Jilin University identified a protein, called endothelial lipase, which differed significantly in its abundance in urine samples of stomach-cancer patients compared to healthy people. In 21 urine samples of healthy individuals only two did not include the protein, while in 21 urine samples of stomach-cancer patients only one sample was considered to have a relatively high level of the protein; levels in the rest of the latter samples were low or absent. “We are suggesting from this relatively small urine-sample set that healthy people should have this protein in their urine,” Xu said. The researchers are currently working on a larger urine-sample set of 200 stomach-cancer patients and 200 healthy people. Now that these scientists appear to have identified a protein marker, Xu says they should be able to develop a method whereby urine will change the color of a piece of paper to indicate the presence or absence of the protein, similar to the way a home pregnancy test works. They also hope to find multiple protein markers for each cancer so as to increase the tests’ accuracy. The current state-of-the-art procedure of endoscopy, being invasive and uncomfortable, no doubt discourages many people from submitting to it. While the protein-marker test is not yet 100-percent accurate, or even established, it could ultimately provide a useful screen that leads patients to seek a more comprehensive exam only when risk is indicated. “A person could go get a urine test, and if the marker protein is present, then generally they are free of stomach cancer,” Xu said. “But if the protein is not present, they should be checked.” The UGA scientists work in conjunction with a team led by Fan Li of Jilin University in China, where Xu spends two months a year. This long-term collaboration has led to the establishment of the Jilin University/University of Georgia Joint Research Center for Systems Biology. The researchers are currently collecting tissues from patients with different types of cancer to identify more protein markers detectable in urine. The study was supported by the UGA President’s Venture Fund, the UGA Office of the Vice President for Research, the Georgia Cancer Coalition, the Georgia Research Alliance, Jilin University, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. National Science Foundation. Contact Ying Xu at: xyn@bmb.uga.edu

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— Kirk McAlpin


Heart attacks, not smoke inhalation, most common cause of firefighter fatalities

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esearchers in the College of Public Health found that cultural factors in the work environment that promote getting the job done as quickly as possible with whatever resources are available lead to an increase in line-of-duty firefighter fatalities. And they determined that the primary cause of death was not smoke inhalation or traumatic injury, as expected, but cardiovascular events. The research, published in the May 2011 issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, examined data gathered from 189 firefighter-fatality investigations conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) between 2004 and 2009. Each NIOSH investigation provided recommendations directed at preventing future firefighter injuries and deaths. The UGA researchers analyzed the recommendations and linked them to important causal and contributing factors of the fatalities. In addition to too-few resources, the leading causes they identified were inadequate preparation for adverse events during operations and a failure to follow command procedures. Study coauthor David DeJoy, a professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavior in UGA’s College of Public Health, said that the firefighting profession, based on a longstanding tradition of acceptance of risk, has to be investigated and interpreted in terms of its culture. “A job that relies on extreme individual efforts, and has too few resources, leads to the chronic condition of doing too much with too little,” he said. “If you are used to taking risks, it’s easy to take a little more risk. And accepting risk becomes extremely perilous in a situation where margins of safety are very thin.” Firefighter deaths dropped in the 1970s and ’80s, largely because of improvements in protective clothing, breathing equipment, and radio communications, DeJoy said. But in the

last two decades, fatality numbers actually edged upward even while the number of fires went down. On average, more than 100 firefighters die on the job in the United States each year, which is three times higher than the fatality rate for the general working population. Eighty-seven of the 213 firefighter deaths examined in the study were cardiac-related. This high rate of line-of-duty death from cardiovascular events resulted in two major recommendations from the researchers: improved medical screening and mandatory fitness/wellness training. These and other of the researchers’ recommendations were prompted by the present limited state of firefighting finances, said DeJoy. Not only does a shortage of funding affect the ability of a fire department to acquire innovative technology, it often leads to a shortage of firefighters at a fire, which compromises rapid intervention and the ability to maintain command and control functions. DeJoy noted that NIOSH investigations are not mandatory and can be refused by a fire department. NIOSH also mostly investigates deaths involving career, or paid, firefighters, although a majority of firefighters in the United States are volunteers— and they account for a majority of line-of-duty deaths. DeJoy believes that NIOSH should further investigate the deaths of volunteer firefighters “because their organizations may have the greatest need for evaluation and technical assistance. “Firefighting is always going to be a hazardous activity,” he said, “but there’s a general consensus among firefighting and scientific organizations that it can be safer than it is. As a society, we ought to make the effort.” Contact David DeJoy at: dmdejoy@uga.edu

— Kirk McAlpin Fall 2010

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PHOTO BY PAUL EFLAND

UGA study reveals breed-specific causes of death in dogs, and has broader implications

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hough dog owners and veterinarians have long wanted to know with confidence which breeds are at high risk of dying from which diseases, the knowledge base consisted mostly of anecdotal evidence and limited data. Now, a new University of Georgia study offers a comprehensive look at the causes of death in more than 80 breeds. The study, published in the April 2011 edition of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, can aid in creating breed-specific health maintenance programs and is a starting point for future studies to explore the genetic underpinnings of disease in dogs. “If we can anticipate what may go wrong for dogs, we can better manage their wellness,” said study coauthor Kate Creevy, an assistant professor at UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Creevy and her coauthors examined the Veterinary Medical Database—a self-described compilation of “patient-encounter data from nearly all North American veterinary medical colleges”—to determine the cause of death for nearly 75,000 dogs over the 20-year period from 1984 through 2004. They classified the deaths by organ system and disease process and further analyzed these data according to breed, age, and average body mass. Eighty-two breeds were represented in their study, from the Afghan Hound to the Yorkshire Terrier, with much of the initial data analysis performed by Jamie Fleming, a former veterinary internal-medicine resident at UGA who is now in private practice in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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While some of the findings corroborated smaller, breedspecific studies, the researchers also found plenty of surprises. For example, toy breeds, such as Chihuahuas and Maltese, are known to have high rates of cardiovascular disease (19 and 21 percent of deaths, respectively), but researchers also discovered that Fox Terriers—a non-toy breed—have high rates of cardiovascular disease too (16 percent). Golden Retrievers and Boxers are known to have high rates of cancer (50 and 44 percent of deaths, respectively), but the researchers found that the Bouvier des Flandres actually has a higher death rate from cancer (47 percent) than the boxer. Creevy noted that the previously unknown high risk of cancer in the Bouvier, a relatively rare breed, highlights the power of their comprehensive approach. “With rare breeds, an individual veterinarian may not see enough cases to develop an opinion about whether the breed has a high incidence of a certain condition,” Creevy said. “But if you analyze records that have been compiled over 20 years, you detect patterns that otherwise wouldn’t have been noticed.” Study coauthor Daniel Promislow, a professor of genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said the study may ultimately help solve one of the great mysteries of canine health. “Normally, if you compare different species of mammals, big ones live longer than small ones—elephants live longer than mice, for example, and sheep are in the middle—


Researchers of a landmark UGA study regarding breed-specific causes of death in dogs with their own pets. Daniel Promislow (left) and Frisbee, a mixed breed (center), and Dr. Kate Creevy (right) with her Border Collie, Makazi.

and that pattern holds pretty well across hundreds of different species of mammals,” Promislow said. “Within dogs, however, the opposite occurs; little dogs live longer.” The researchers found that larger breeds are more likely to die of musculoskeletal disease, gastrointestinal disease and, most notably, cancer. Smaller breeds had higher death rates from metabolic diseases, such as diabetes and Cushing’s disease. Scientists first mapped the dog genome in 2003 and have since compiled data on genetic variation at single points on the genome for more than 80 breeds. By combining such genetic data with the data from their study, the UGA team can search for genes that influence the risk of specific diseases. Promislow pointed out that because the building blocks of the dog genome and the human genome are the same, understanding the genetic basis of disease in dogs could also inform human medicine. If, say, specific genes are found to play a significant role in Cushing’s disease in dogs, then scientists can assess whether a similar process occurs in humans with the

disease, with the ultimate goal of creating new strategies for early diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Creevy observed that Promislow’s background in evolutionary biology allows the team to explore basic biological questions that have implications far beyond veterinary medicine. For example, “is genetic variation for disease susceptibility due to a few genes that vary in the population and have a big effect or to dozens or hundreds of genes that each have small effects? There’s potential to learn a lot about the genetics of disease in general, using the dog as a model,” Promislow said. Creevy also noted that their collaboration underscores the potential of interdisciplinary research. “This study is a good example of the unique things that can happen at a research university,” she said. Contact Kate Creevy at: creevy@uga.edu; or Daniel Promislow at: promislow@uga.edu — Sam Fahmy

Fall 2010

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A heavy burden:

Georgia’s obesity epidemic By Sam Fahmy

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PHOTO BY DOT PAUL/UGA

Kinesiology researcher Bryan McCullick (above) believes that reforming the amount and quality of school-based physical education is fundamental to improving children’s health. “Obesity won’t improve without reforming PE,” he said.

his was no ordinary game of tag: Just as the elementary-school children were getting the hang of it, their instructor shouted “STOP!” and changed the game’s rules. The children now had to hold a partner’s hand and adapt their strategies accordingly. Soon, another “STOP!” Now they had to shrink the playing field to half the gymnasium. The children, at this point breathing hard and smiling big, were participating in a University of Georgia study exploring the link between physical activity and academic performance. The initial goal was just to keep the students moving, and on that count the program was already an unmitigated success. While most children in elementary schools’ phys-ed classes are engaged in moderate to vigorous activity a mere 10 percent of session time, these students (at Chase Street Elementary in Athens) were physically engaged for 64 percent of their 45-minute session—or nearly a half hour. “We’d like to expand this program to more schools,” said professor of kinesiology Bryan McCullick, “because physical activity is important not only for preventing obesity but also for the overall well-being of the child.” Such after-school classes are only part of a broad set of programs at UGA that are addressing one of the most pressing threats to Georgians’ health and prosperity. While McCullick and his colleagues focus on reducing obesity in youth through physical activity, others at UGA are exploring how changes to our diets, workplaces, communities, and lifestyles can create a healthier future.

Fall 2011

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Medical expenses average $1,400 more per year and hospitalizations are 60 percent longer for the obese than for normalweight people.

COURTESY OF THE CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION.

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From bad to worse Georgia has one of the highest rates of obesity in the nation. And it has the dubious distinction, which it shares with six other states, of having doubled its rate of obesity in the past 15 years. Today, close to one out of every three adults in Georgia is obese, or possessing a body mass index (BMI, a measure of height to weight) of 30 or above. A BMI of 30 corresponds to 200 pounds on a five-foot-eight-inch person. In addition, another 37 percent of Georgia adults are overweight (with a BMI of less than 30 but greater than 25), bringing the combined number of overweight and obese adults in the state to more than 65 percent. And the problem isn’t limited to adults: Fourteen percent of Georgia’s youth are also obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sedentary lifestyles certainly play a role in the obesity epidemic, as does the availability of heavily marketed and inexpensive high-calorie foods and sugary drinks. Insufficient sleep contributes to obesity, as do environmental factors such as a lack of sidewalks and safe places for recreation. Paradoxically, poverty seems to exacerbate obesity—possibly by decreasing access to more nutritious foods. The consequences of the obesity epidemic, in terms of health and dollars, are staggering. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers, costing the state an estimated $2.5 billion annually in medical costs, according to the CDC. People who are obese have average annual medical expenses more than $1,400 dollars higher than those who aren’t overweight. Health economist David Bradford, who is Busbee Chair in Public Policy at UGA, points out that health care costs are passed on to taxpayers through programs such as Medicaid and to employers through higher insurance costs and reduced productivity. “We sit in the middle of a perfect storm where we already have a significant burden of chronic illnesses (such as heart disease and diabetes) that will only get worse as the population ages,” he said. “And obesity in Georgia is on a trajectory that will make those diseases even more common.”


Researchers in the College of Public Health are using community-wide initiatives—farmers’ markets, family fun nights, and exercise and nutrition programs—to deliver health information in fun, interactive ways.

PHOTO BY MARSHA DAVIS

Starting young

PHOTO BY KELLY WEGEL

The university’s efforts to better understand the causes of obesity and help reduce it—especially among children—extend across the state and nation. In south Georgia’s Colquitt County, Marsha Davis of the university’s College of Public Health and her colleagues are sharing information on healthful eating and exercise through a weekly newsletter for parents, family fun nights held in partnership with the local YMCA, and through community-wide initiatives such as farmers’ markets and walking trails. “We’re using evidence-based practices— from some of the major physical-activity and nutrition programs for children— and tailoring them to individual communities,” Davis said. “We’re trying to deliver information in very engaging and interactive ways.” At one booth in a family fun night, parents and children are asked to spoon out the number of teaspoons of sugar that are found in a typical can of soda (10 teaspoons, to their great surprise). At another, parents and children exercise together. At yet another booth, they learn about healthful recipes through cooking demonstrations where they share the resulting nutritious meal. The program in Colquitt County is conducted through UGA’s Archway Partnership, which brings university expertise to community-identified needs. In this case, local pediatricians had reported seeing elementary-school students with high blood pressure and type II diabetes—a disease now common enough in children that health officials no longer refer to it as “adult-onset” diabetes.

Fall 2011

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Workplace health researcher Anne Marie Camp (below) helps a Union Pacific Railroad employee with a survey about his diet, physical activity, job requirements, and health status. Participants completed questionnaires at the study’s start, at the end of a six-month intervention, and again after a six-month maintenance period.

PHOTO S COURTESY OF THE WORKPLACE HEALTH GROUP/UGA

More healthful workplaces Like schools and community centers, workplaces are ideal for reaching large numbers of people. For nearly 15 years, David DeJoy, Mark Wilson, and their colleagues in UGA’s Workplace Health Group have partnered with organizations of diverse sizes and types—from Dow Chemical to Home Depot to the Georgia Department of Community Health—on issues related to health and occupational safety. The resulting studies have consistently shown that employers can improve the health of their staffs through programs that encourage physical activity and more nutritious eating habits. DeJoy and Wilson understand that employers have limited resources, so their research seeks practical cost-effective solutions. In a recent study that involved nearly 1,100 Union-Pacific employees, the researchers found that those who were given counseling on healthful eating and who participated in a program in which they exercised for 150 minutes per week were able to maintain their weight. These employees’ counterparts in the control group, by contrast, saw their collective waistlines expand over the four-year study period. DeJoy concedes that weight maintenance (as opposed to weight reduction) doesn’t sound like a huge win, but he notes that from a population-health perspective, simply keeping people from gaining weight can dramatically improve outcomes while reducing health care costs. “As people are gaining weight, they’re marching toward diabetes,” he said. “If you can get them to flatten that trajectory by maintaining their weight, you’re lowering their risk.”

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Nutritionist Mary Ann Johnson (left), and graduate student Christina Whitworth (below) share healthful meals and recipes with seniors at the Athens Community Council on Aging.

Never too late

PHOTOS BY PAUL EFLAND/UGA

As people age out of the workforce and into retirement, the consequences of obesity become more and more apparent. Obesity accelerates and exacerbates diseases of aging, such as heart disease, while at the same time robbing older adults of mobility and independence, among other costs. For more than a decade, Mary Ann Johnson, the Bill and June Flatt Professor of Foods and Nutrition, has been exploring the factors that put older adults at risk for obesity; and as a result she has designed and tested interventions to help them lead healthier lives. Working with the Athens Community Council on Aging and senior centers across the state, she has found that it is never too late for older adults to improve their health. One study, a four-month series of classes that included chair-based exercises and encouraged participants to record their number of daily steps with a pedometer, helped them increase their physical activity by 26 percent. As a result, the number of participants reporting good physical function increased from 17 percent to 25 percent. Another series of classes focusing on healthful eating produced a 21-percent increase in the number of participants who consumed at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily. “We’ve seen this over and over,” Johnson said. “Older people are willing to change; they just need a little help, guidance, and support.”

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The farmer’s market in Colquitt County is one of the communitywide initiatives conducted through UGA’s Archway Partnership PHOTO BY MARSHA DAVIS

Synergy in the fight against fat The breadth of research at UGA and its status as a land-grant institution dedicated to serving the state make it particularly well-suited to tackle Georgia’s obesity epidemic, according to Clifton Baile, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and Distinguished Professor. This year, the university launched an obesity initiative that includes faculty from nearly every school and college on campus. The initiative also is building partnerships with hospitals, schools, and community groups. “We’re starting to pull people, who in many cases didn’t know each other, into collaborative research teams,” said Baile, who directs the initiative. “One of its aspects, for example, is helping children learn the impacts of obesity and ways to avoid it, so there we’re working with 4H clubs and schools.” Baile and others point out that obesity is such a multifaceted problem that no one researcher or program can expect to halt the statewide epidemic. The combined efforts of the UGA researchers and partners, however, have potential that exceeds any individual effort. “It’s true in all of public health that as you pile on a variety of different types of interventions—whether they be behavioral, policy-related, or economic—you get really significant improvements,” said Wilson, of the UGA Workplace Health Group. “Each of them alone has some impact, but it’s the combination that really raises the bar. You get a benefit that’s synergistic rather than additive, so it’s like adding one plus one and getting three.” (Sam Fahmy is communications director in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences).

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Jim Porter—ecologist, marine biologist, Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor—talks with ugaresarch editor Helen Fosgate about his research on coral reefs, his teaching philosophy, and why, after working as an environmental scientist for some 40 years, he is still an optimist.

I testified before Congress several times about this situation, and along with others, I was instrumental in getting Vieques declared an EPA Superfund Site. The military has to approve the cleanup, but to date no funds have been released for cleanup.

Q: Given all that, you don’t seem like an angry guy. How so? A: Because I teach. I tell my students about challenges they will face, but I also talk with them about solutions; I teach them that they are not victims but agents of change. I bring my research into the classroom, and I find that this stimulates my students because they become part of the exploratory process. This kind of teaching is empowering because it openly presents both adversity and accomplishment, which resonate with students as they begin their own journeys through life. But in addition to my research motivating my teaching, my teaching motivates my research—there is a continuous flow of energy between these two poles of academia. Also, I’m convinced that you can’t be an effective teacher if you’re not an optimist.

PHOTO BY JAMES PORTER/UGA

My military-related research began at Vieques, an island of Puerto Rico, which was used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range and ammunition testing ground from the 1950s until 2002. Civilian residents of Vieques believed that the bombing had done serious harm to the local ecosystem, and they asked us to come and conduct surveys and take samples. We counted not only the corals but also the underwater unexploded ordnance [UWUXO]—bombs and artillery shells—that were corroding and leaching material into the water. We found an inverse relationship between several health indices on the reef and the number of munitions remaining on the sea floor. In addition, corals in physical contact with UWUXO were all sick.

White pox disease in Elkhorn coral (above); Porter (far left) holds one of the earliest books on corals, written and illustrated by James Dana in 1849.

Q: You’re a Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor, the University’s highest honor for teaching. What are your biggest concerns as an educator? A: I’m very concerned about the environmental literacy of our future electorate. We must ensure that our graduates understand the seriousness and immediacy of global environmental problems and can help develop the political will to address them. Over my career, this objective has greatly influenced what I teach and the level at which I teach it. For example, for 20 years I taught marine biology to senior students, while at present I teach a freshman class on conservation—two very different assignments! In teaching senior students, my main concern was content. But in my freshman class, I’m far more

concerned with context. In preparing a lecture I ask myself “How can I present this information so that students will remember both what was said and why it was important?” So I spend more time on contextualizing information than on fire-hosing my audience with facts. I have a lot of evidence that this effort pays off because, years later, former students can still tell me an uncanny number of specifics about a lecture— and what action it inspired. That’s very gratifying. I’m also concerned about illuminating the history of science. Knowing how we arrived at our current understanding of a scientific discipline helps us make the next discovery and change old paradigms. In my own field, some of the original descriptions of corals date back to beautifully illustrated monographs from the 18th century. Early scientists were often great artists. Even 300 years later, we can still learn from their work.

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N A D E O T NG Y B Deep-space travel will require foods that contain such low levels of oxygen, they can be stored for years while retaining their quality. As it turns out, this is a valuable trait for food stored here on Earth as well.

By Stephanie Schupska

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PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA

Foods for exploring strange, new worlds Astronauts on the International Space Station currently enjoy a wide variety of foods, from multi-grain Cheerios, cashews, and banana pudding cookies to broccoli au gratin and tofu with hot mustard sauce. But most are in space for six months or less, so food storage, while important, hasn’t posed major restrictions. But developing safe, high-quality foods for deep space travel—a trip to Mars that could last three to five years—is critical. “One of the more important criteria for space food is that it’s ‘Earth-like,’” said Michele Perchonok, an advanced food technologist at NASA. “Comfort foods—those we grow up with like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and chicken noodle soup—are foods that the astronauts crave, especially when they’re in space for many months. The tubes and cubes of the Mercury and Gemini era just don’t meet those comfort food criteria.” Wicker agrees. “Tang is great, but it’s not orange juice,” she says. “Food is such a critical part of who we are. It’s our link to Earth.”

To seek out new food storage solutions Wicker and Brody have been working primarily with fruits because they are high-acid foods not given to the growth of harmful pathogens. But next on their agenda are low-acid foods

such as vegetables and meats. These foods present a whole new set of food-safety challenges. “If we get enough oxygen out of these foods, anaerobic pathogenic organisms like Clostriduium botulinum, which causes the foodborne illness botulism, might start to grow,” Brody said. “But if we can simultaneously sterilize low-acid foods while removing the oxygen, we could get extraordinary results in low-acid products.” He envisions a day when canned foods enjoy a new level of quality as well. “We’re talking about canned food with the quality of frozen food and a shelf life of two years or more,” he said. “And it’s not merely something for going to Mars. It would give us the ability to produce canned peaches that are just as good as fresh in terms of quality, aroma, and flavor. It’s not far away.” “Imagine the energy savings associated with storing foods at ambient instead of chilled or frozen temperatures,” said Wicker, “and the food product has as high quality as the chilled or frozen counterpart.” But as the first researchers to start this kind of micro-oxygen work, they still have problems to solve and new horizons to explore. “Even if we’re able to get oxygen levels down to parts per billion, we don’t yet have the instrumentation to read it,” she said. “We’re entering a brave new world in food processing.” (Stephanie Schupska is a writer in UGA’s Office of Public Affairs)

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ugaresearch Fall 2011