The science of giving

holidays-giving2-180x75It was big news this week when Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder and CEO of Facebook, announced that he would give 99 percent of his Facebook shares, currently valued at more than $45 billion, to charity.  Zuckerberg made the announcement on Giving Tuesday, a movement to spark charitable giving in response to the high levels of commercialization and consumerism in the post-Thanksgiving season. [Read more…]

‘Tis the season: Who gives and why?

Happy Holidays from all of us at EBL.  We’re signing off until the New Year.  In the
meantime, we’re reposting this piece on charitable giving.

It’s that time of year when many people think about giving to charities. Some make donations for tax-purposes before the end of the calendar year.  Others incorporate giving into Christmas traditions, or make an effort to spread some holiday cheer to the less fortunate.
[Read more…]

Evidence needed: The effect of volunteering on health

Here at EBL, we’ve written before about the impact of volunteering on public health.  In fact, Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer has conducted research that found that older adults who get involved in creating a sustainable society are not only helping the environment, they are also helping themselves. So we were interested to find a new systematic review on the health and survival of people who volunteer.

[Read more…]

Move it or lose it: Real evidence on physical activity

In honor of the 2012 London Olympics, the British medical journal The Lancet published a series of publications about the state of physical fitness across the globe.

The series includes a plethora of new evidence:

  • One large-scale report collected data on physical activity levels for adults 15 years or older from 122 countries worldwide. It found that more than 31 percent of adults are physically inactive. The researchers found that inactivity levels rise as people get older, and the women are less likely to be active than men. It also found that physical inactivity is more problematic in higher-income nations.
  • A far-reaching analysis in the series uses advanced statistical methods of quantify the health implications of physical inactivity on the major non-communicable diseases in 122 countries across the globe. The authors concluded inactivity was a contributing factor to heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and colon cancer. The estimated that 9 percent of premature death across the word were related to physical inactivity.
  • Another article provides a comprehensive review of evidence-based strategies for promoting physical activity. The review found that community and mass media informational campaigns helped encourage people to get moving. It also found that schools and worksites are good venues for promoting physical activity through education, sports and social groups. Finally, the authors found that finding ways to encourage activity within a community – including building sidewalks, implementing policies that encourage active transportation and building parks and gyms – are all good ways to improve physical fitness.

While the Lancet provides a wide range of data about physical activity across the world, the take-home message is a simple one:  It’s important to get moving, no matter what your age. Policy makers at all levels around the world should make it a priority to increase physical activity levels in their communities and countries.

Building and maintaining relationships is one key to healthy aging

There are some clear risk factors that lead to an earlier death such as smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity. But are there other factors that influence health and wellness later in life – behaviors that researchers have yet to study?

Until recently, one of those unknown factors was social relationships. Anecdotal evidence suggested that people with strong social relationships reduced their risk of mortality, but there was little evidence to back up the suggestion. While many medical studies included a measure of social isolation, no one had looked at the issue on a broader scale.

That is, until researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a systematic review of the literature on how social relationships impact the risk of dying later in life.  They reviewed 148 studies that included more than 300,000 participants that included information about how people died, their initial health status and pre-existing health conditions, as well as type of assessment of social relationships.

Over all the data they reviewed, they found a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships. The lack of social relationships had more influence on mortality rates that other risk factors like physical activity and obesity.

The researchers noted that more complex measurements of social relationships – instead of simple indications such as marital status –  were more predictive of death.

The take-home message is that your relationships later in life are just as important as what you eat and drink, how much exercise you get, and other important health behaviors. More research is needed to determine how relationships improve well-being, and specific characteristics that contribute to the trend. In the meantime, it’s important for medical professionals to consider social relationships in their treatment plans for older adults.

Get outside! The evidence shows it’s good for you

The grass is finally green, leaves are filling the trees, and creatures of all sorts – from garter snakes to mosquitoes – are taking up residence in our yard.  It’s the season that my family relishes spending time outside.  This year, my almost-three-year-old is fascinated with every bug, twig and spider web he encounters.

We’re lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world, and in a community that values nature. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that fewer and fewer families experience the same connection with nature that we do – and this is having a detrimental effect on children.

A growing body of evidence suggests people of all ages, and especially children, have fewer nature experiences and spend less time outside compared with previous generations. The research shows this trend has negative implications for health, especially childhood obesity, as well as development and education.  A term has even been coined for the problem – “nature-deficit disorder.”

In fact, there are dozens of studies that demonstrate the positive effects of children spending time in outside including improved social and personal skills, concentration and cognitive functioning.

Here at the College of Human Ecology, Professor Nancy Wells is working on this issue. She is an environmental psychologist whose work delves into childhood exposure to nature and adult attitudes toward the environment. Her research has demonstrated that having natural areas in communities promotes well-being, encourages physical activity and encourages social connections by bolstering a sense of community.

There’s still more work needed to find the best ways to connect people with nature in our modern world. But already, the take-home message is clear.  People of all ages should make an effort to spend time outside, and governments and communities need to develop natural areas that give their residents access to nature.

Professor Dan Lichter: Census drives evidence-based decisions

As the U.S. Census bureau continues to release data on state demographics, researchers, public officials and program managers across the country are digging into the new information to make decisions about everything from construction projects to quality-of-life issues and emergency services.

EBL sat down this week with Professor Daniel  Lichter, an expert in population studies and public policy at the College of Human Ecology, to talk about the 2010 census and its implications for using data to drive real-life decisions. 

Lichter called the decennial  census “the most important statistical gathering exercise in the entire United States.”  Here are some of this other thoughts about the event.

EBL: Can you describe the historical significance of the census?

Lichter:  We’ve had census every year since 1790. It’s required by U.S. Constitution.  It is conducted to insure the one person, one vote idea – to determine the number of seats each state would receive in the U.S. House of Representatives and to realignvoting districts in each state every ten years.

EBL: How has our use of the information changed over the years?

Lichter: The census is also vital for program planning and public policy. It’s always been used in some sense for those sorts of things, but it’s used now more than ever before. How do we know where to build new highways or schools or whether we need a new waste water treatment plant?

“Today, increasingly, we use census data for identifying particular populations and areas with specific needs so we can more effectively target resources to those areas.  The census is vital for earmarking public funds. It also has a huge constituency in the private sector in terms of marketing. It helps companies decide, for example, where to build new stores.

EBL: How did the 2010 census pan out?

Lichter: It’s probably the most successful census ever in terms of coverage. The census bureau has become very good at identifying hard-to-reach populations and reaching out them.

People should always fill out their census schedules when they get them because it reflects whether they’re accurately represented in Congress and whether they receive their fair share of revenues.  By law, these data are strictly confidential to insure completeness and accuracy.

(The U.S. Census Director recently spoke at Cornell about how his organization was able to collect accurate information. You can read about his talk by clicking here.)

EBL: How do you use census data in your research?

Lichter:  I’m very much interested in the changing racial and demographic composition of the U.S. population. We are almost to the point now where half of the births in the United States are to populations other than non-Hispanic whites.  We are rapidly moving toward a  majority-minority society.

I’m interested in what that means, not only in terms of educating children now, but what it means for the labor force 20 years out.  What we do or don’t do for minority populations today is going to have a major effect on our country 20 years from now.

I’m also interested in racial segregation, and to what extent racial and ethnic groups live near each other. Our population is becoming more diverse, but many communities and neighborhoods are also becoming more segregated. Some of my work tries to understand how race relations are reflected in the geographic distribution of people.

New York continues PROSPER Partnership to prevent substance abuse

We heard some exciting news at EBL this week!  New York families will soon have more access to evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse among middle school students and their families.

You might remember that we wrote about PROSPER Partnerships – which stands for PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience – as an ideal model for implementing substance abuse prevention programming based on real evidence. The program links Cooperative Extension, public schools, and local communities to choose proven programs that serve the needs of individual communities.

Last month, New York was chosen as one of five states in that will continue the process of forming a PROSPER Partnership, with Cornell serving as the university partner.

The goal is for New York to become a full PROSPER State Partnership by August of this year.

Kim Kopko, Extension Associate in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and New York State Liaison for PROSPER, is excited to continue with the program.

“This is indeed a very positive development and an exciting opportunity to utilize the Cornell Cooperative Extension System to bring evidence-based programming to families and communities in New York,” she said.
As you might expect, PROSPER uses plenty of evidence to determine if a state is ready to enter a full partnership. PROSPER staff collected and analyzed data from a state survey, in-depth interviews with Cooperative Extension staff and partnering agencies, and information garnered from various activities in New York.

PROSPER has also plenty of evidence to prove that their system yields results. PROSPER Programs typically recruit 17 percent of eligible families in their communities, compared to less than six percent for other community programs.

Students who participate in the program are better at problem solving, more likely to refuse offers of alcohol and other drugs, less likely to believe that substance use has positive effects and more likely to delay initiation of substance use. And each $1 invested in the program yield about $9.60 of savings.

All of that is great news for New York families, who will soon have even greater access to evidence-based programming.

How to convince volunteers to care for trees

The evidence shows that trees are an important part of our landscape – whether here in forested Ithaca, or in densely populated urban areas.

Studies have found that trees help improve focus, promote a sense of community, and deter crime. So it’s no surprise that major cities across the nation are launching initiatives to plant trees. New York City is undertaking one such project.  Called the MillionTreesNYC initiative, it aims to plant one million trees across all five city boroughs by 2017.

But urban forestry projects typically encounter a problem, explained Gretchen Ferenz, a senior extension associate at Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York City.

“Capital project funds will support planting and immediate care of trees for a couple of years, but costs for longer term care to ensure a young tree’s growth often are not included in municipal budgets,” she told the Cornell Chronicle for a story. “As a result, many urban trees do not survive into maturity.”

Ferenz’s office has joined forces with Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources to create the Urban Forestry Community Engagement Model, a program that provides workshops about the importance of trees to community members in two New York City neighborhoods. The goal is to enlist residents and organizations to become stewards of their community’s trees and, ultimately, to develop resources to help groups around the country do the same.

As part of the program, they’re collecting evidence to learn how to get more community members involved in caring for trees in their neighborhoods. They recently published a study that examines motivations and recruitment strategies for urban forestry volunteers.

Through a survey and focus groups, as well as a review of existing literature on the topic, the team found volunteer who plant and care for trees in their communities are motivated by a wide range of factors.  And most have a limited knowledge of the benefits of urban forests.

This type of work is an important first step in helping cities learn how to engage community members to help care for trees in their neighborhoods – and ultimately in making our world a bit greener.

(You can learn more about the Urban Forestry Community Engagement Model by clicking here.)

When every drop counts: The facts on public health during a drought

Throughout the history of the Earth, droughts spanning seasons or even years have taken their toll on plant and animal life.  In more recent U.S. history, a series of major droughts every 20 to 30 years have devastated farms, sparked wildfires and led to adverse health effects.

Although the literature contains well-researched articles on the aspects and implications of drought itself, there have been few fact-based inquiries into how drought affects public health in the United States. Until recently.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Environmental Health published a guide to assist public health officials to prepare for and cope with drought in their communities. The document includes information about how drought affects public health, recommends steps to help mitigate the health effects of drought and identifies future needs for research and other drought-related activities.

Among the CDC’s recommendations is to identify the populations that are most affected by a particular adverse condition. For instance, immune-compromised people drinking contaminated well water are most at risk of contracting infectious diseases. Once the affected populations have been identified, public health departments should actively collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data to help determine the extent of the public health threat and the best steps to mitigate it.

The publication also suggests additional research in numerous areas including identifying the health effects of reusing water, using surveillance data to determine which chronic disease are more frequently reported during a drought, and identifying pathogens that can be used as drought indicators.

Intrigued?  You can find the entire publication by clicking here.

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