In recent years, a new epidemiological research paradigm has emerged that recognizes that traditional risk factors like smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, and obesity are themselves shaped by the social and physical environments in which we live. The goal of the Contextual Risk Factors Laboratory is to identify modifiable aspects of the social, physical, and policy environments that are linked with individual health risk factors or behaviors. Currently, we are focusing on risk factors and behaviors in the broad areas of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and obesity.
One project involves studying the biological pathways through which a childs neighborhood contributes to development of early markers of CVD, including obesity and diabetes. The framework for this research is shown in the accompanying figure. We are currently studying the neighborhood environments of 400 children who took part in a recently completed Pennington Biomedical study. This project involves linking neighborhood characteristics like food retail outlets, opportunities for physical activity, and neighborhood safety and disorder to behavioral data and cutting-edge biological measures that indicate early CVD risk. Results from this research will shed light on specific pathways linking the neighborhood environment to development of CVD risk during a critical time period, thus providing tools for improved disease screening, an impetus for targeted environmental and policy change, and a basis for future preventive efforts.
Our lab is also participating in a large international study of obesity and physical activity in 10-year-old children. Through this study, we will be able to look at the contributions of a childs home, neighborhood, and school environments to diet and physical activity behaviors across the world.
In research conducted with colleagues at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) School of Public Health in New Orleans, we are studying the role that neighborhood parks play in fostering social capital among park users. We have shown that parks with higher social capital are used by more people and support higher amounts of physical activity than parks with lower social capital. We hope to extend this research by developing programs within parks and their surrounding neighborhoods to cultivate social capital and to increase neighborhood park use and physical activity within the parks.
Research in this laboratory is supported by the American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health, and the Pennington Biomedical Research Foundation.