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Does education work to create healthy lifestyles?

Released: Friday, September 01, 2006

BATON ROUGE - Researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center are set to test the adage “education is the key.” Armed with a new, sizable grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they want to know if education of elementary and middle school students actually does lead to healthier choices and healthier lifestyles.

Led by Donald Williamson, Ph.D., a team of behavioral, nutritional, and health specialists will set up programs in 38 schools involving 2,500 fourth through sixth graders across Louisiana this fall. The aim is to see if changes to the school environment, lessons, and activities will lead to long-term, healthier lifestyles of the students.

The team’s grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is approximately $2.1 million dollars and will be used to carry out the extensive study called "LA Health.” Starting in September, the project will test the long-term effectiveness of school-based learning and interventions started in fourth through sixth grades.

The LA Health project goals are to improve environmental and behavioral factors to help cope with stress and disappointment, improve mood, improve diet and physical activity, enhance social skills, make friends and promote self-esteem. The scientists of LA Health will test whether in-school modifications that improve children’s lifestyles and/or personal health choices may, among other things, encourage good nutrition, increase physical activity, reduce academic and general stress, encourage positive interaction with other children, and create an understanding of what “good health” means physically and mentally. Researchers will then measure whether these changes lead to long-term healthier lives and improved learning.

The researchers would like to build on two earlier, smaller research studies that indicated early learning may work to improve health. Those two programs were also NIH-funded pilot studies called the HIPTeens project and the Wise Mind project.

The researchers have reached agreements with schools in seven rural parishes: Pointe Coupee, Madison, East Carroll, Avoyelles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, and East Feliciana. The research team has grouped the schools into clusters, which will be randomly assigned to one of three programs. Researchers will also collaborate with a program called LA GEAR UP, to test the effectiveness of a healthy lifestyle program for children who come from economically disadvantaged environments. The LA GEAR UP program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and is designed to enhance educational achievement. Since LA GEAR UP will be implemented in some of the 38 schools, the healthy lifestyles program will be combined with an academic enhancement program. The study will follow the children for three years with in-school modifications as well as classroom instruction and internet counseling.

The scientists hope the results of this investigation will significantly impact public health policy related to nutrition, mental, and physical health and learning enhancement in rural communities, minority communities, and in children from families that are economically disadvantaged.

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The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the causes of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. Itis a campus of the Louisiana State University System and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at the Center includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 50 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dieticians, and support personnel, and 19 highly specialized core service facilities.  The Center's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 234-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.