Nursing professor awarded $3.3 million to study mid-life health
By Deborah Ziff Soriano
Nursing Collegiate Professor Shannon Zenk was awarded a $3.3 million National Institutes of Health grant to create a rich, multilevel picture of the factors that influence someone’s health in mid-life.
This is important because mid-life — ages 40 to 64 — is a particularly vulnerable stage: when obesity rates peak, chronic diseases emerge and health disparities grow. The long-term goal is to improve diet, physical activity, and sleep behaviors in mid-life adults and reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities, Zenk says.
Zenk and her team are looking at 500 African American, Hispanic and white adults to study where they live, where they spend time doing routine activities, and what other factors might trigger healthy and unhealthy behaviors.
“People’s environments matter for their health,” Zenk says. “Past studies have focused on where people live, but looking only at someone’s [home] neighborhood doesn’t give a true picture of his or her environmental exposures. For example, someone may live in a suburb but work in a downtown with much higher walkability.”
She added: “We’re trying to more accurately capture the consequences of those environments for their health.”
To track this, the five-year study will combine a variety of cutting-edge, real-time methodologies: GPS location tracking, smartphone surveys, food tracking with photos and activity monitoring.
A full picture
Zenk says the environment matters because it provides opportunities for healthy behaviors, such as proximity to parks, but it might also put up barriers, such as high crime or access to unhealthy food.
She also wants to look at whether those environmental exposures vary in their influence depending on personal “traits” — longstanding characteristics, such as executive function — and “states” — which are temporary conditions or situations, such as time pressure, stress level, and mood.
“Our primary target is people’s day-to-day behaviors: What factors matter and how does that change day to day, moment to moment?” Zenk says. “The influence of environment might differ depending on who you are, as well as your current situation.”
Co-investigators at UIC are Oksana Pugach, biostatistician in the Institute for Health Research and Policy, and David Marquez, professor of kinesiology and nutrition. Additional co-investigators include Stephen Matthews of Pennsylvania State University, Kiarri Kershaw of Northwestern University and Melissa Lamar of Rush University.