NIH aims to use precision medicine to reduce health disparities

The National Institutes of Health has announced a new $31 million effort to explore the potential of precision medicine to target health disparities nationwide.

Through the program, the NIH aims to develop new tools and methodologies to integrate patient data with information on various factors impacting health outcomes in communities. These factors include social and economic conditions.

The NIH is setting up what it calls Transdisciplinary Collaborative Centers (TTCs), with each center focusing on two to three research projects.

HealthData Management: “Unfortunately, racial-ethnic minorities as well as socio-economically disadvantaged and rural populations in the U.S. continue to experience a disproportionate share of many diseases and adverse health conditions. However, precision medicine holds great promise for reducing these health disparities through better targeted prevention and treatment strategies.”

An astonishing amount of food goes to waste globally

At the same time when more than 800 million people across the globe suffer from hunger, about 2.9 trillion pounds of food is wasted each year. That, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, is enough to feed every one of these people more than twice over.

So where does all that food go? According to a recent National Geographic report, much of it is lost after it’s harvested simply because there’s inadequate infrastructure—such as storage facilities, refrigeration and roads and highways to transport it. But in developed nations, including the United States, a tremendous amount of food goes to waste due to retailers ordering too much product and consumers passing over items when there are only a few left on the shelf.

Consumers also too often throw away perishables before they’re actually expired, due largely to a practice of food manufacturers placing early expiration dates on products to encourage people to throw them out and buy more.

In addition to letting enormous amounts of food go to waste when millions upon millions of people could desperately use it, this waste also has a terrible environmental impact. Experts estimate that the water wasted to product this thrown-out food amounts to the annual flow of Europe’s biggest river, the Volga, and that the oil used is the equivalent to “more than 70 times the amount of oil lost in the Deepwater Horizon disaster [of 2010].”

The impact a supermarket has on a food desert

vegetables-449950_1920.jpgResearchers at the RAND Corporation had a chance to examine and challenge core assumptions about access to healthy food and community health in “food deserts”—where more than 23 million people in the U.S. currently live.

Food deserts are low-income neighborhoods, typically in urban areas, where produce and healthy foods are hard to come by, but convenience stores selling chips, soda and other junk food are plentiful. Public health experts have long connected these food deserts to higher rates of obesity, type-2 diabetes and other chronic health conditions for the residents who live in these neighborhoods.

When a supermarket opened in a beat-up Pittsburgh neighborhood in 2013, it gave RAND a rare opportunity to look at the effects the store would have. What researchers found was surprising—and could change how we look at food deserts in communities across the country.

When the Shop ’n Save opened in the neighborhood, nicknamed “The Hill,” residents referred to it as a “little garden of Eden” due to its bountiful selection of fresh produce and dairy products. RAND researchers noted that the arrival of the grocery store meant that residents consumed, on average, 200 fewer calories per day, and that they ate less added sugar and drank fewer soft drinks and alcohol.

However, residents did not consume any more fruits and vegetables than before. And even more surprising was the fact that the health improvements were found in people who never even shopped at the new grocery store. Rather, researchers found that the mere existence of the store changed the culture of the neighborhood in a positive way.

From the RAND Review: “What changed? The researchers found a likely answer in a survey question they had asked residents before and after the store opened: How satisfied are you with your neighborhood? About two-thirds of Hill District residents said they were happy with their neighborhood before the store opened. Afterward, the number shot to 80 percent.”

These answers pointed to something that was difficult for researchers to measure previously: the psychological impact of the grocery store, rather than just the improvements to physical health it was having on residents.

This study represents the largest U.S. study on food deserts to date, and it gives public health officials extremely valuable data and insights on how to manage this issue in the future.

Milwaukee middle school students find potential solution to food deserts

A group of middle school students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has reportedly found a possible solution to the problem of food deserts—neighborhoods in mostly urban areas that suffer from a lack of produce and grocery stores that carry healthy food options.

According to local NBC affiliate TMJ-4, Hillel Academy seventh-grade students developed a new way to grow one’s own produce in a small amount of space, using a small container and a robot to water the mini-garden.

Is something like this a real solution to the food desert problem in U.S. cities? Probably not, but it’s an innovative idea from a group of young people—and definitely a step in the right direction.

Milwaukee is actually somewhat of a leader in this space. It’s home to Growing Power, which has done some great things in the community food system movement over the past two-plus decades.

Minnesota’s homeless population may be declining

According to numbers from the Wilder Foundation, a St. Paul-based health and human services nonprofit organization, Minnesota’s homeless population has seen its first significant decrease since the early 1990s.

The foundation reports that at last count, which took place on a night in October 2015, there were 9,312 people on the streets—a decrease of about 1,000 people since the last census in 2012. In fact, homeless numbers are now below where they were in 2009.

While this is tentatively good news for the state (and the Twin Cities in particular), a Wilder Foundation spokesperson was sure to caution that the numbers might not be completely accurate, as it’s notoriously difficult to locate homeless people living outside of shelters.

From the Star Tribune: “The latest count reveals a sharp contrast between Hennepin County, where homelessness dropped by 15 percent over the last three years, and Ramsey County, where it jumped 14 percent.”

Another important statistic from the Wilder Foundation’s study is that children who are with their parents make up about 33 percent of Minnesota’s homeless population—also down about 12 percent since 2012. However, the number of unaccompanied minors on the street has increased by nearly 50 percent (although numbers are still relatively low in that subgroup).

homeless in mn

Image from Minneapolis Star Tribune