The evidence on house-hunting

houseAs I drive my children to their after-school activities, I’ve noticed more and more for sale signs along the roads around our house – a sure sign of spring!  As we approach house-hunting and moving season, it’s a good idea to look at the evidence on house-hunting. [Read more…]

Evidence-based canning: Preserve your summer bounty

ww2-home-canning-350My family belongs to a Community-Support Agriculture farm, which means we get a big box of fresh veggies from a local farm each week. In addition, we like to pick blueberries, tomatoes and raspberries locally. Put together, it means we need to find a way to preserve all of this local fresh food for the winter months. [Read more…]

How to keep teen parents in school

pregnant teenThe evidence shows that high school dropouts earn less money, have poorer health outcomes and are more likely to get into legal trouble.  And teenagers who are pregnant or who are parents are especially vulnerable to dropping out of school.  There are hundreds of programs designed to keep teens in school. But how effective are they, especially for pregnant and parenting teens?

[Read more…]

What we know about custodial grandparents

About 2 percent of children in the U.S. are being raised by their grandparents with no parent living in the home, according to the U.S. Census bureau. But what do we know about these families? And do grandparents face any particular parenting challenges that differ from more traditional households? [Read more…]

New evidence about the federal food stamps program

Nearly 45 million American receive help purchasing food each year through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps.  Here on EBL, we’ve written about the federal program in the past, specifically how it helps keep families out of poverty. [Read more…]

What we know – and what we don’t – about Omega-3 fatty acids

Over the past four decades, there have been thousands of studies examining the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids – building blocks our bodies use to create cell membranes and maintain the connections between brain cells.

The medical community’s excitement over this nutrient began when observational studies of non-western diets – in Japan and among Eskimos in Greenland, for example – found significantly lower rates of heart disease and other chronic medical conditions.  (Humans can’t produce omega-3 fatty acids, so we must get them by eating fish, walnuts, flaxseed and green vegetables.)

Dozens have studies have identified these types of correlations. But earlier this year, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which included 20 clinical trials involving nearly 70,000 people, concluded omega-3 fatty acids did not prevent heart attacks, strokes or deaths from heart disease.

Proponents of omega-3s point out that the authors of the JAMA analysis used the an especially strict standard to determine statistical significance. (Using the typical standard would have found a 9 percent reduction in cardiac deaths.)

But other systematic reviews – like this one by the Cochrane Collaboration – found it unclear whether omega-3 supplements reduce the risk of cardiac deaths.

So, what’s the bottom line?  This is one case where the evidence is truly unclear. One challenge is that longitudinal diet studies are difficult to perform because there are so many variables in what people eat over long periods of time. The it can be tough to differentiate between omega-3s consumed as part of a diet versus those taken in a supplement.  It is clear that foods like salmon, tuna and green vegetables are good for us – and including them in our diets is a step in the right direction. But we need more evidence to determine their exact effects, and to establish whether it’s worthwhile to take omega-3 supplements.

How your working environment impacts your health

Adopting a healthy lifestyle can be tough these days, especially for parents working hard to make ends meet. Yes, there are gyms and organic grocery stores, on-demand yoga and healthy cooking magazines.  But for working parents, long hours and irregular schedules make can make it difficult to eat healthily and exercise.

A cadre of researchers are Cornell’s College of Human Ecology are working on this problem, conducting the research and pulling together the best evidence to help families exercise more and eat healthier.

Among them is nutritional sciences professor Carole Devine, who has created and evaluated a program that helps change workplace environments to support physical activity and healthy eating.

The program, called Small Steps are Easier Together, is an active collaboration between Cornell faculty, Cooperative Extension educators and worksite leadership teams across New York. Pilot studies have been conducted in 23 sites since 2006. It involves worksites creating wellness leadership teams, who work with Cornell researchers to implement evidence-based strategies – like creating walking groups, posting maps, and offering more fruit and vegetable options in the cafeteria – to increase walking and promote healthier eating.

The most recent analysis of the program included 188  participants in 10 rural worksites. It found the percentage of sedentary women had declined to from 42 percent to 26 percent. A total of 35 percent of the women moved to a higher activity level.

Devine is also pulling together the evidence on how working conditions impact food decisions for families at home and on the job.

Her research has found that the stress of a busy job impacts parents’ ability to serve healthy meals, leading them to serve quicker and less healthy meals, such as fast food. She’s investigated a variety of coping strategies such as negotiating a more flexible work schedule and teaming up with a neighbor to take turns preparing meals.

Devine’s work highlights the connections between work environments and health, and provide some evidence-based strategies to improve public health.

Evidence-based energy: What we really know about hydraulic fracturing

A newer method for extracting natural gas from layers of shale deep below the earth’s surface – called hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking – has ignited debates across the nation. Proponents say that natural gas key to the country’s energy future. (Burning natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gases emissions than coal and oil.) But opponents say this method for extracting it poses risks to ground water supplies.

Over the past several years, Cornell researchers have mounted an unprecedented response to the issue. They’ve stepped up research efforts to collect and develop as much evidence as possible about hydrofracking. And they are reaching out to help individuals and communities across New York to help them make decisions about the benefits and dangers of drilling.

They have created the Cornell Cooperative Extension Natural Gas Resource Center, which is made of a 12 faculty members from a wide array of disciplines—including sociology, environmental sciences, and geology—and 20 extension educators. The group has compiled information for people impacted by hydraulic fracturing including individuals considering leasing their land, community groups, and local governments.

The Resource Center’s web site is a treasure trove of information on the topic including how geologists use seismic data to determine if natural gas is accessible, how to negotiate a lease for gas drilling and the economic impacts of drilling.

If you live in an area where natural gas drilling is a possibility, you’ll definitely want to dig into this resource.

The evidence on U.S. debt

As the federal government struggles this week to raise the federal debt limit, we thought it’d be a good time to review the evidence on household debt over here at EBL. 

A business columnist at the Detroit News made the point this week that American families actually hold more debt than the federal government, with households owing more than $2.4 trillion of credit card debt alone. (That compares to approximately $1.4 trillion in the total debt for the U.S. government in 2011.)

What else do we know about Americans and debt?   Family Economics and Resource Management, a project by Cornell Cooperative Extension to people achieve more  secure financial situations, compiled an interesting list of facts about Americans and debt management.  Among them:

  • 40 percent of U.S. households live beyond their means.
  • the net worth of the average middle-class American household after accounting for debt is less than $10,000.
  • and 48 percent of American credit card holders only pay the minimum payment amount each month.

Essentially, the evidence shows that Americans are no more responsible with their borrowing habits than the federal government.

But there is a way out.  Rutgers Cooperative Extension has compiled 20 tips for smart borrowing, such as:

  • Borrow as little as possible by making the largest down payment you can afford.  This will help you to avoid becoming “upside down” or owing more than your purchase is worth.
  • Shop for credit, just like other purchases. Compare at least three different banks for the lowest interest rates and fees.
  • Always pay more than the minimum monthly payment. For example, send 6 percent of a $5,000 outstanding balance on an 18 percent APR credit card, instead of 3 percent, and you’ll save 9 years of payments and $2,975 in interest.

Be sure to understand the facts about any money you borrow or credit cards you hold.  Smart borrowing will help you achieve financial success over the long run.

Evidence-based house hunting

Since my daughter was born this spring, our family has felt a bit crowded in our three-bedroom ranch home.  So we decided to put our house on the market this spring and look for a new place that will provide more space.

Like most things in life, we’ve found house hunting is a fairly subjective activity.  There is a range of features we’re looking for: a nice yard for the kids to play in, a modern kitchen, storage space, a two-car garage, and a friendly neighborhood.  Of course, we haven’t found one house with everything we want, so we’re weighing the pros and cons to make the best choice for us.

But there are some elements of house hunting where the evidence comes into play. It’s these items you don’t necessarily think about when you walk into a house for the first time, but seem to be those important basics that can cost a lot of money, or can make living in a new home a miserable experience. 

To find out what I needed to know, I turned to Cornell Cooperative Extension.  They have a whole topic area dedicated to home, including some useful information about buying a home.  Their research-based fact sheets on mold, lead, and radon have helped us to keep an eye out for potentially hazardous conditions.  Thanks to the information they provided, here are a few specific actions we’re taking in our house hunt:

  • If we find a house that was built before 1978, we plan to test for lead-based paint.
  • No matter what house we find, we will have a radon test to make sure that it doesn’t have high levels of this dangerous gas, especially since Tompkins County is considered a high radon-risk zone.
  • Moisture in closets and basements will be a sign for us to check for mold in potential new homes.

In addition to these safety aspects, the Internet now provides financial histories of houses with only a few mouse clicks. Most county assessor’s offices offer background such as previous sale prices, tax bills and a list of renovations made. While this has always been public information, it’s now much easier to access. In addition, web sites like http://zillow.com and http://trulia.com  compile assessor’s data to provide neighborhood averages and comparisons.  

When making a large purchase like a home, it’s wonderful to have all of this data – literally at your fingertips.

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