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Major children's health study focuses on Ramsey County neighborhoods

In 1959, U.S. health researchers turned to a mere dozen university hospitals for answers to questions surrounding children's health.
 
Now, 50 years later in a more diverse America, they are focusing their studies on families of all backgrounds in neighborhoods all over the country, including 16 in St. Paul and suburban Ramsey County, for the largest and longest study of children's health ever conducted in the United States.

Researchers will look at the broad environment in which children today grow up, from the air they breathe, to the foods they eat and the water they drink, as well as their family dynamics and medical histories, and community and cultural influences such as ethnic backgrounds and economic class.

Chosen in part for its racial and ethnic diversity, Ramsey County, with more than 28 percent persons of color, is among 105 counties across the country to be included in the National Children's Study, meant to be representative of the nation's children as a whole.


The University of Minnesota Study Center, which is conducting the Minnesota portion of the study, this month starts enrolling pregnant women and women considering becoming pregnant. The study will follow children until age 21.
 
Nationwide, 100,000 children will be included in the National Children's Study, which is designed to help uncover factors linked to major health problems.

"What we learn from the NCS could lead to new treatments and preventive practices for all sorts of health concerns we have as parents and as health care providers. We are never going to be able to effectively prevent childhood health conditions until we fully understand what contributes to them,'' said Pat McGovern, professor at the University of Minnesota and lead researcher for the National Children's Study in Ramsey County.

Need for study
Rising rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma and autism in children demonstrate the need for the study, explained McGovern.

"What scientists think is that there is a complex interaction between environment and family histories or genetics. But they don't know. They haven't had a big enough sample of children to study, nor been able to enroll during or before pregnancy and follow then to develop who develops these conditions and who doesn't,'' McGovern said.

Plus, she said, "Families look different today. There are more single parents, more two-parent families where both are working, exposure through work to stress.'' People eat differently, often eating more fast food. Their "patterns of physical activity" are different and over the years since the last major study, there has been "an explosion of chemicals in our environment.'' All could be factors related to health, she said.

Also, changing waves of immigration bring people with "different cultures, habits and health conditions with them,'' McGovern said, explaining why this study is different than its predecessor.
 
Back in that 1959 study, the National Collaborative Perinatal Project, which ran through 1974, researchers studied 58,000 pregnancies and followed the children until age 7 or 8. Findings helped make connections between lead paint and cognitive and IQ problems, between alcohol and fetal alcohol syndrome.

In this study, researchers chose counties according to characteristics including the number of births per year, the percentage of low birth rates, racial and ethnic diversity, and whether the area was urban or rural. Ramsey County, of course, is an urban, Midwestern county.  

Soon, letters will start going out to 32,000 homes in Ramsey County in those selected neighborhoods, inviting potentially eligible women, aged 18 to 49, to contact them. Fathers will eventually becoming involved, as well.

Reaching out
Researchers will reach out to neighborhoods ranging from the poorer and more diverse Frogtown rooted near the state Capitol building to richer, whiter Shoreview settled comfortably in the north suburbs. Other neighborhoods to be included in the study are listed below.  

Involving those who do not speak English is a challenge also being addressed. Non-English speakers will be able to call an 800-number for nine different language translations, including Laotian, Thai, Spanish, Hmong and Karen. Further translators will be available throughout the course of the study.

News of the study is being distributed through community organizations, community centers, religious groups and media aimed at communities of color or non-English-speaking audiences, says Deborah Hendricks, director of community engagement and outreach for the study.

"Certainly there are challenges in explaining the study in ways everyone can understand and being open to questions they may have about the study and participation in the study,'' Hendricks said, adding that study researchers are determined to reach all populations.

A community advisory board, started three years ago, reflects the diversity of Twin Cities residents and members are spreading news of the study in their communities.

"It's probably one of the best research studies in terms of inclusiveness of the populations. They're reaching out to all the communities, including fathers,'' said Clarence Jones, a person of color and a student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

The study is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which awarded a five-year, $14 million contract to the University of Minnesota to conduct the research in Minnesota.

Researchers are looking for participants in the following St. Paul and suburban St. Paul neighborhoods:

Greater East Side
West Side
Dayton's Bluff
Payne-Phalen
North End
Frogtown
Como
Hamline
St. Anthony Park
Highland
New Brighton
Arden Hills
Shoreview
Maplewood
Mounds View
White Bear Lake
 
Those interested in participating may call 1-866-315-7126 or email info [at] ncs.umn.edu.

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