Quick updates about the latest public health news from across the School and beyond.
Paid maternity leave has lasting mental health benefit
Paid maternity leave following the birth of a first child appears to have positive benefits on women’s mental health later in life, according to a new study. Researchers looked at data from women ages 50 years and older from 13 European countries. The researchers found that mothers who had received several months of maternity benefits with full wages were 16.2 percent less likely to be depressed years later than mothers without paid maternity leave. Co-author Lisa Berkman, Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology and director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, says, “One can imagine that it must feel good for a mother to know that she is financially secure and can take time off and bond with a baby and have a job. The idea that this would have an impact 30 years later is amazing.”
To improve bicycle safety, make crash reports more detailed
Researchers at the Harvard Chan School are calling on police in all states to improve their reporting of crashes involving vehicles and bicycles.
The researchers recommend switching from paper templates to electronic tablets that would include more options to gather bicycle-specific data—such as codes indicating if the bicyclist ran into a driver’s open car door. Detailed information about each accident would then be automatically uploaded from the tablet into spreadsheets for later analysis. This systematic data gathering could inform the design of safer bicycle environments and thus encourage more people to cycle, the authors say. In the U.S., the number of commuters who bike to and from work rose about 62 percent from 2000 to 2013.
FDA axes trans fates
Researchers at the School hailed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) decision to remove artificial trans fats from the food supply as a lifesaving “victory for public health.” The FDA announced on June 16 that partially hydrogenated oils—the primary source of artificial trans fats in processed foods—are no longer “generally recognized as safe” and must be phased out within three years.
Extensive work by Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition, and others has documented the harmful effects of trans fats, including greater risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Their efforts helped bring about the 2006 FDA decision requiring manufacturers to list trans fats on nutrition labels. And now, thanks to the new ruling, Willett says, “Consumers will no longer need to be concerned that this toxic substance may be hiding in their foods.”
Clicking the way to a healthy heart
The bad news: Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a leading cause of death in the U.S. The good news: Adults who remain free of CVD risk factors in middle age have an extremely low chance of developing the disease for the rest of their lives. The new Healthy Heart Score developed by researchers at the School helps individuals identify potential CVD risks in their lifestyle and offers tips for improvement. The no-cost web-based survey—found at here walks users through a series of easy-to-follow questions about their diet, exercise, and smoking habits.
Alcohol’s health benefits may vary by race, gender—but imbibing poses transient risk for all
Moderate alcohol consumption may lower risk of premature death, but a new study finds that its potential benefits vary by race and gender. For men, the lowest risk of mortality was among white men who consumed one to two drinks three to seven days per week and among black men who did not drink at all. For women, the lowest risk of mortality was among white women consuming one drink per day three to seven days per week and among black women who consumed one drink on two or fewer days per week. The findings suggest that dietary guidelines on alcohol may need to be tailored based on race, but more research is needed, says Chandra Jackson, research associate in the Department of Epidemiology.
A separate study found that people are 72 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack immediately after drinking compared with other times. Gin, vodka, and whiskey appeared to pose the greatest risk, while beer and wine may pose less risk.
Are microbiomes the new fingerprints?
The microbial communities we carry in and on our bodies—known as microbiomes—have the potential to uniquely identify individuals, much like fingerprints, according to research fellow Eric Franzosa. He and his colleagues identified distinguishing features in the microbiomes of 120 people who donated stool, saliva, and skin samples to the Human Microbiome Project. The researchers then developed specific “codes” for each person, which they compared with the codes from microbiome samples collected from the same individuals at follow-up visits and from samples taken from additional people. The results showed that the individuals’ codes remained unique and that a large fraction of the volunteers’ microbial “fingerprints” were stable over a one-year sampling period. The codes constructed from gut samples were particularly stable, with more than 80 percent of individuals identifiable up to a year after the sampling period.
When chefs cook it, children eat it
Schools collaborating with a professionally trained chef to improve the taste of healthy meals significantly increased students’ fruit and vegetable selection and consumption, according to a new study. Yet while using “choice architecture” (environmental nudges to promote healthy choices) in school cafeterias improved students’ selection of fruits and vegetables, the changes did not increase consumption over the long term. “The results highlight the importance of focusing on the palatability of school meals,” says lead author Juliana Cohen, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition, adding that “schools should not abandon healthier foods if they are initially met with resistance by students.”
Kids aren’t drinking enough water
More than half of all children and adolescents in the U.S. are not hydrated enough—probably because they’re not drinking enough water, Harvard Chan School researchers found in the first national study of its kind. What’s more, the researchers found gender and racial gaps in hydration status: Boys were 76 percent more likely than girls to be inadequately hydrated, and black children were 34 percent more likely to be inadequately hydrated than white children. Although excessive dehydration is associated with serious health problems, even mild dehydration can cause issues, including headaches, irritability, poorer physical performance, and reduced cognitive functioning. Nearly a quarter of children in the study did not drink any water at all, and other researchers have found that schools, child care centers, and afterschool programs often have limited free water access.
Healthy Eating Plate now available in new languages
The Healthy Eating Plate—a simple, visual meal-planning guide that addresses important deficiencies in the U.S. government’s MyPlate nutritional icon—has now been translated into more than 18 new languages by its developers at the School, giving it the potential to reach more than half the world’s population. Like MyPlate, the Healthy Eating Plate is easy to understand—but unlike the government’s icon, it provides clear guidance on such topics as the importance of eating more whole grains and avoiding refined grains, and distinguishing between healthy proteins and those that should be limited or avoided. Download the plate.