by Nelly Papalambros and Simona Morochnik
Bonnie Spring, Ph.D. is Director of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM) – Center for Behavior and Health. She is Professor of Preventive Medicine (Behavioral Medicine) in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University.
Dr. Bonnie Spring (BS): The department of Preventive Medicine has many observational academiologists, but I’m an interventionist. I like to produce health behavior change. Often we try to make the solution to health promotion an ‘either or’. We’re either going to change policies and the environment or we’re going to change individuals’ behaviors. But we really need to do both.
One question we address is whether it’s all over by the time you are an adult?’. For example, if you’ve established bad health habits, have you done irreversible, undoable cardiovascular damage? Or can you reduce or reverse the damage by making healthy lifestyle changes? I kept saying to my Northwestern colleagues, ‘look, you have these huge population studies, why can’t you find peopLe who made healthy lifestyle changes?’ Many of [my colleagues] argued that it was unlikely that people made healthy lifestyle changes late in life; if anything they got worse. But one of the advantages of having these cohorts of thousands of people is that there’s got to be some variation in behavior. Sure enough, when we broke down the data in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study—around 25% of the people actually did improve their behavior; a third stayed the same, and the rest got worse. But that’s enough of a distribution to see a dose-response association with their likelihood of having subclinical atherosclerosis. Those data suggest a couple of things: (1) even if you’re an adult and you improve your health behaviors, it’s helpful and (2) there is no safe period. Just because you get to adulthood and you’ve been living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. You have to keep it up. We can’t just attend to the healthy lifestyle habits of kids. We have to think about our whole lifespan.
About the Authors
Nelly Papalambros is a PhD/MPH student in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. She currently works in the laboratory of Dr. Phyllis Zee studying sleep and circadian rhythms. Nelly is interested in using science to advocate for evidence based health policy.
Simona Morochnik is a Ph.D. student in the IBiS program studying biomaterials in the labs of Dr. Guillermo Ameer and Dr. Igal Szleifer. She enjoys adventure-seeking, lying on sunny patches of grass, overpopulating her Goodreads to-read shelf, and singing with the NUtones, Northwestern’s graduate a cappella group.