May 22 2014
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RWJF Scholars in the News: DNA and depression, health impact of foreclosures, and more.

Around the country, print, broadcast, and online media outlets are covering the groundbreaking work of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, fellows, alumni, and grantees. Some recent examples:

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita significantly increased the number of stillbirths in the Louisiana parishes most affected by the storms, according to a study by RWJF Health & Society Scholar Sammy Zahran, PhD. The research team concluded that 117 to 205 fetal deaths could be attributed to distress caused by the storms, the New York Times blog Well reports. “You can have two mothers with equal characteristics—age, race, and so on,” Zahran said. “[B]ut if one happens to be in a more severely destroyed area, the risk of stillbirth is higher.” The study was also covered by Daily Mail and HealthDay. Read more about Zahran’s work on the Human Capital Blog.

Genetics play an important role in whether stress makes people depressed, and in how quickly they recover, Madison.com reports. RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumnus Jason Fletcher, PhD, looked at data before and after the 9/11 attacks and correlated it with DNA information reported by survey respondents. He found that 60 percent of participants who carried a particular gene appeared to be at an increased risk for sadness after the attacks. “Overall, the evidence suggests that genetic endowments are an important source of variation in response to a stressful event, in producing some depressive symptoms in young adults,” Fletcher said. MedicalXpress also covered the study.

Living near foreclosed property may play a role in increasing blood pressure, according to a study funded in part by RWJF. The study is co-authored by RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research recipients S.V. Subramanian, PhD, MPhil, Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, and Ichiro Kawachi, MD, PhD, and RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumna Maria Glymour, MS, ScD. It provides the first evidence of a link between foreclosed property and neighbors’ systolic blood pressure, reports the Imperial Valley News (California). Researchers found each additional foreclosed property within 328 feet of a home was associated with an average increase of 1.71 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure.

An RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumnus, Jason Houle, PhD, conducted the first study to find a correlation between foreclosure and suicide rates, Medical Xpress and UPI report. Houle explained that foreclosures affect risk for suicide by means of both individual and community-based factors, including shame or the feeling of loss that one experiences after foreclosure, the resulting lack of community services, increased crime, and feelings of insecurity as homes in a community are abandoned.

Almost 40 percent of African Americans and more than one-third of Latinos have no financial assets, and Whites are more likely to possess every kind of asset, including homes, the National Journal reports. The article cites work by RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research alumnus Darrick Hamilton, PhD, which finds that inheritances explain a significant part of the racial wealth gap. “It’s actually ownership of an asset at a key point in life—an asset that will appreciate,” Hamilton said. Often, assets young people receive from family become powerful sources of future wealth because they slowly and automatically increase in value. The Miami Herald also covered the study. Read more about Hamilton’s work on the Human Capital Blog.

Research by Rucker Johnson, PhD, MA, an RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research alumnus, shows that increased spending on education in low-income districts has a significant impact on students, during their school years and into their careers, Vox reports. Johnson focused on students who attended schools in the 28 states where courts had required state governments to change their school funding mechanisms so as to achieve greater equity. He found that for students from poorer families, a 20-percent increase in spending per student increased high school graduation rates by 23 percent and increased their later-in-life income by an average of 50 percent. Johnson’s study was also mentioned in the Washington Post.

A Newsweek article about how conspiracy theories “have been woven into the fabric of American society” cites studies by RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research alumni Eric Oliver, PhD, and Brendan Nyhan, PhD. “Conspiracy narratives are more common in public discourse than they were previously,’’ Oliver said. This is a concern because such theories “distort the debate that is crucial to democracy,’’ Nyhan noted. Separately, Nyhan continues to draw coverage for his study that found public health campaigns touting the effectiveness of vaccines, and debunking a supposed link between vaccines and autism, might increase worries about dangers of the vaccine. The study was the subject of an article in The New Yorker.

Research by Laura Tach, PhD, an RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumna, offers valuable insights about the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a columnist in National Review writes. Tach interviewed more than 100 EITC recipients and found that 70 percent understood that working low-paying jobs was a criterion for receiving the credit, while 38 percent knew that only parents of children were eligible. According to the article, Tach’s research suggests that recipients may not respond to EITC’s incentives structure if they do not fully understand how the program works.

John Cowan, MD, an RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumnus, told members of the Rome Rotary Club that the great majority of Americans will experience significant back pain during the course of their lives, the Rome News-Tribune (Georgia) reports. Cowan said that 6 million people each year are incapacitated by lower back pain, resulting in missed work, doctors’ visits, or hospitalizations that result in $16 million in lost wages and billions in hospital costs. Cowan went onto describe how to prevent and treat back pain.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that Propeller Health received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to sell an updated version of its electronic device designed to help monitor and control asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Propeller Health was founded by RWJF Health & Society Scholars alumnus David Van Sickle, PhD, MA, who developed the device. The approval was also covered in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MobiHealth News.

Tags: Behavioral/mental health, Genetics, HC Website Feature, Health & Society Scholars, Human Capital, Human Capital News, Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research, Media Coverage, Pregnancy, Research, Research & Analysis, Scholars and fellows, Scholars in Health Policy Research