Frontlines Winter 2021

An optimistic outlook may be a healthier one

Evidence suggests that optimism enhances people’s ability to regulate both their emotions and their health behaviors, and it may also enhance healthy biological functioning, such as lowering inflammation. At a time when many people are suffering, it may be more important than ever to identify positive health assets that can prevent future suffering, and ways to make them more attainable, said Laura Kubzansky, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-director of the School’s Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness.

Person holding small whiteboard over their face with a cartoon smile drawn on it

In a study published this summer, Kubzansky and colleagues found that, in a population of relatively young and healthy U.S. Army active-duty soldiers, including many who were deployed and engaged in active combat, those who tested highest for optimism at the start of the study had a 22 percent lower risk of developing hypertension during three and a half years of follow-up than those who scored the lowest. People may be able to improve their optimism through methods such as meditation and counseling, Kubzansky said, adding that she and her colleagues are also examining societal conditions that may make it more likely that people can become optimistic.

Dementia incidence declined every decade for past 30 years

Illustration of tree shaped like a persons head with leaves blowing awayOver the past 30 years, the incidence of dementia has declined an average of 13 percent every decade in people of European ancestry living in the U.S. or Europe, according to a recent study published in Neurology. Using this trend, researchers estimate that 15 million fewer people could develop dementia by 2040 in high-income countries than if the incidence of the disease remained steady. “As the populations of the U.S. and Europe age and life expectancy increases, the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has dramatically increased, due to the larger pool of people in the ages of highest risk,” said Lori Chibnik, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology. “However, our analysis shows that the incidence, or rate of new cases, has been declining, translating into fewer new dementia and Alzheimer’s disease cases than what we would have expected.”

New mechanism for cellular migration discovered

Researchers at the Harvard Chan School have discovered a new biological mechanism through which cells acquire migratory capacity. It is called the unjamming transition, or UJT. During the only previously known process—the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT)—cell contacts degrade, detach from the tissue of origin, and finally scatter as individual entities. However, during UJT, cells remain integrated within the tissue of origin and migrate collectively.

The research team noted that UJT might be a fundamental mechanism for collective cellular migration during embryonic development, tissue regeneration, and cancer metastasis. For example, it had been thought that cancer cell migration, invasion, and metastasis cannot occur without EMT. But the new findings suggest other possibilities for how metastasis occurs and could eventually help researchers develop better and more targeted cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. The findings were published in Nature Communications in October 2020.

Heavy consumption of sugary beverages declining in the U.S.

Two glasses stand side by side, one filled with cubes of sugar, the other filled with dark sodaThe percentage of Americans who were heavy consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages—those who drank more than 500 calories’ worth every day—dropped significantly from 2003 to 2016. Researchers found that the percentage of children who were heavy consumers declined from 11 percent to 3 percent during that period, and the percentage of adults dropped from 13 percent to 9 percent. “This is promising, because we know that excessive sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is related to poor health,” said first author Kelsey Vercammen, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Epidemiology. The study was published online September 23, 2020, in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Harvard launches Global Nursing Leadership Program

In October, Harvard University launched the Harvard Global Nursing Leadership Program, a wide-ranging educational initiative aimed at strengthening the nursing and midwifery workforce around the world.

The program, jointly governed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Graduate School of Education, plans to offer a new certificate and MPH degree that will provide nurses and midwives at the government ministry level with foundational academic and field experience in global public health and population health management. It was inspired by the successful Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program and will initially be offered in Africa—in partnership with the African Union, Africa CDC, and the World Bank—followed by Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

“The coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of what we’ve long understood: Nurse leadership is critical to every aspect of global health advancement—from administering care on the front lines to helping communities move from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine acceptance,” says Harvard Chan School Dean Michelle Williams. Investing in nursing is critical to addressing the immediate crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to broader global health goals, she says, noting that the program enables “top nursing experts to learn not only from a world-class curriculum but also from one another’s experiences.”

Anthony Fauci talks pandemic, vaccines

Anthony FauciAnthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joined Harvard Chan School on December 9 for a live Q&A moderated by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. The event, also broadcast live on CNN, was part of the School’s virtual symposia series, When Public Health Means Business. Fauci offered his thoughts on when pandemic life may come to an end in the U.S. “Let’s say we get 75, 80 percent of the population vaccinated,” he said. “By the time we get to the end of the summer…we may actually have enough herd immunity protecting our society, that as we get to the end of 2021, we could approach very much some degree of normality that is close to where we were before.”

New public health certificate program planned for business leaders

In response to the global reckoning COVID-19 has thrust upon businesses, the School has announced the launch of a new certificate program to provide business leaders with a foundational understanding of public health. The certificate program will launch in June.

The program will prepare participants through case-based learning to understand the practice of essential public health skills and tools. It covers topics including public health fundamentals, practical epidemiology for business, public health communications, economic resilience, and vaccine readiness.

“There is a need for public health expertise within the business community, which has seen the impact of COVID-19 across their bottom lines, employee health, supply chains, and more,” says Dean Michelle Williams. This certificate program aims to prepare business leaders for what Williams sees as a coming “health-first” era, defined by shifting expectations and demands around health equity and health promotion. Says Williams, “This future is being determined by the decisions we make today, and we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to shape it together and advance health for all.”