Inquiring Minds

Inquiring Minds

Weight Allergy

A UNH researcher may have discovered yet another reason to stay slim: it may help you avoid asthma.

Scientists have long suspected a link between obesity and asthma, conditions that independently have a negative impact on the quality of life. But studies of that relationship have shown that among people who are overweight, women are more likely than men to develop asthma, says Anthony Tagliaferro, professor of human nutrition and director of the Center for Health Enhancement at UNH's Human Nutrition Center.

With a $100,000 grant from the American Lung Association of New Hampshire, Tagliaferro, pulmonologist Mark Windt and graduate student Vicki Vieira have tested 57 women over the past two years, collecting data from blood tests, body composition measurements and lung capacity readings.

Tagliaferro says the traditional view of the correlation is that asthma can cause obesity because people with asthma tend to be more sedentary than normal. Instead, he says, for many women it could be the other way around: because they're overweight, they develop asthma. That's because when women gain a significant amount of weight, they develop resistance to the effectiveness of their own insulin. This insulin resistance sets off a metabolic chain reaction that includes an increased availability of the female hormone estrogen.

Elevated estrogen levels can trigger the immune system to produce antibodies, which react to the presence of allergens in the air and can lead to allergies and a risk of asthma, he says.

"We think the interacting effects of insulin and estrogen are the reason that adult women develop asthma more frequently than men," says Tagliaferro, who has studied obesity and eating habits for nearly 30 years.

There's also evidence that children born to women who suffer from allergies are more likely to develop asthma during childhood, he says. And studies have indicated that women who take birth-control pills, which can elevate estrogen levels, are more prone to developing asthma, he adds.

"Asthma has been increasing dramatically over the past 30 years, both in children and adults, and that has significant public health implications," Tagliaferro says. Not only is it a debilitating disease, it's also extremely costly in terms of missed work, medical treatment and lost schooling. And the cost of obesity is substantial as well.

One of Tagliaferro's next research goals is to study whether weight loss reduces the biological triggers that are known to be important in the development of allergies and asthma. If it does, he may show women how to address two health issues by focusing on one.

Recycled Roadways

It's not often you look at a road and think, "There's got to be a higher purpose here," but that's just what Taylor Eighmy '83G, '86G, director of the Recycled Materials Resource Center, has spent the last five years doing.

Eighmy, a UNH research professor of civil engineering, is studying the possibility that more recycled materials could be used in road building. It's a tricky proposition, because cities, states and the federal government all have different rules when it comes to the materials that go into their roads. So for Eighmy and his fellow researchers to prove the viability of recycled products, they not only have to develop the products themselves, but also the diagnostic methods needed to show their effectiveness.

Eighmy and his fellow researchers have therefore taken a "jack-of-all-trades" approach to their work, conducting materials testing while devising standards by which states can judge the effectiveness of materials on their own. The center is also collaborating with highway research institutions in Europe to promote the use of recycled materials. "We are involved with 23 European highway research laboratories and universities to share information, methods and approaches back and forth," says Eighmy. All their work is aimed at increasing the use of recycled materials in building roads.

One of the projects he is most excited about is actually an economic model rather than a scale roadway model. In partnership with UC Berkeley, the UNH researchers are quantifying the cost savings of using recycled materials in roadway construction by factoring in water and air emissions as part of a life cycle assessment.

"It's going to hopefully allow decision-makers and state DOTs [departments of transportation] to have a better understanding of the upfront costs of a new material," Eighmy says. "We can show that there are cost advantages to using a recycled material when compared to a traditional construction material," he says.

Of course, the economic modeling wouldn't be as much fun without some concrete--or at least asphalt--results. Eighmy particularly enjoys a project being conducted in Massachusetts in which the center is helping to develop a synthetic aggregate made out of recycled plastic and coal fly ash. The recycled aggregate, which is added to concrete or asphalt, has the added advantage that it's lighter and stronger than traditional aggregates, he says.

It's that kind of notion--that there is an added value, be it tensile strength or economic benefit--that might ultimately give recycled highway materials an edge over their traditional counterparts. One of the criticisms of recycled materials, he acknowledges, is the idea of recycling simply for the sake of saying something is recycled.

"The last thing you want to do is create what's known as long, linear landfills," says Eighmy. "Our projects are in direct response to states asking for better approaches."

Do states think they're on the right track? Apparently so: the American Association for State Highway and Transportation Officials recently passed a resolution supporting the reauthorization of the RMRC in the next six-year federal highway bill.

What a Girl Wants

What makes teenage girls take part in risky activities like smoking and fighting?

Assistant professor of nursing Pam DiNapoli has been exploring risky behavior in adolescent girls ever since she set up a health clinic in Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook, N.H., about eight years ago.

DiNapoli believes that violence in girls, which according to one study rose more than 300 percent in the 1990s, is part of a broad set of problems and not simply a result of violent urges.

Using a recent survey on youth risk behavior and a series of interviews, DiNapoli studied the possible reasons for violent behavior in girls. "There's a lot of stuff going on in girls that's difficult to measure or identify," she says. "The girls' behaviors just seemed to be like onion skin. There was much more to the behavior than what was manifesting. With girls, you need to look at overall health risk behavior rather than the term 'violence.'"

For example, says DiNapoli, "A girl comes in and she's getting suspended for smoking. You ask, 'Why were you smoking?' and if you work hard enough, she talks about getting beaten up by her boyfriend. It's like an iceberg for girls--they come in with what you can see, and when you talk to them, you find out they're in an abusive relationship, they're victimized, they have no one to talk to."

She believes girls need stable relationships and a sense of control to navigate the treacherous waters in high school. A strong factor is whether the student's group of friends is engaged in risky behavior.

"Girls are very relational," she says. "They need to be connected and they need a sense of competence. The model that I predicted for violence in girls showed that about 40 percent of violence in girls could be predicted by a lack of internal competence or intrinsic motivation." If they had "a sense of control over their surroundings, they would be predictably less violent," she adds.

Girls develop self-assurance through stable relationships, according to DiNapoli, who encouraged the girls to use health-center staffers as mentors to provide a stable port during stormy adolescent times.

Avoiding one risk does not necessarily provide the girls with a way of escaping others, however. "Oftentimes we take away one bad choice and they make another," says DiNapoli. "We need to make more of a comprehensive, school, family, community-type program. You help them with abstinence education and they don't become pregnant, but maybe they're increasingly violent, or likely to get victimized in a bad relationship. Did we really help them? We need to look at the whole context of their choices and make the context safer."

DiNapoli next plans to study middle-school girls and their families to try to determine if there are ways to foster stable relationships more readily at home.

"Instead of thinking that if we put this program in the school, things will get better," Di Napoli explains, "the question is, 'What can we do to help parents change their relationships with their children? My research has shown it's not the quantity of parents you have that's important, but the quality of parent relationships." ~

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