People, Place And DNA: Indiana Study Goes Knocking For Health Answers

May 8, 2019

When health researchers make headlines, it’s often for a sensational project – like manipulating genes to create a baby. But others are examining broader issues, including how – and where – you live affects your health.

A research project out of Indiana aims to add understanding of how all the pieces of the health puzzle fit together.

Those pieces include habits, culture, social life and much more. They help determine whether you get serious illnesses like cancer, diabetes or a heart attack.

Indiana University professor Bernice Pescosolido leads the Person to Person Health Interview study.

“The social environment can either turn on protective genes or it can turn off protective genes,” says Pescosolido. “And so social factors like loneliness, social factors like childhood traumas, these things have been scientifically shown to affect whether or not they're going to get certain kinds of diseases.”

Pescosolido says the study explores the next level of a person’s health makeup.

“We really need that interaction for this next phase of science, which looks at them as a whole person, not just the disease in the body in the bed,” says Pescosolido.

Field interviewer for the study Paula Williamson has been knocking on doors for the past few months. She’s been asking people about a lot of things – family history, lifestyle, mental health, drug use, childhood experiences, financial stability and their community.

She also asks for DNA samples. The genetic material will be analyzed and calculated with the survey research. Williamson says people have been very open.

“There's part ownership in this project that people want their voices to be heard,” says Williamson.

Sandra Jo Edwards is one of the study participants. When she received an invitation to participate, she threw it away.

“I just thought it was just something, you know, that come from, you know, wherever. And I was like, 'Oh, I'm not gonna do this,'” says Edwards.

But when Williamson rang her doorbell, she started thinking about her parents, and her family’s health.

Both of Edwards parents had cancer. Her mother is a survivor. Her father passed away.

“You know my father, I mean, he just did it himself though, you know. He didn't want to go to the treatments or anything like that,” says Edwards.

Her information will be compiled with thousands of others to give a clearer, deeper look at why one person develops a health condition and another does not.

This type of research is growing, says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

"If you think about that it makes a lot of sense because where you live determines access to schools, jobs, food sources, walkable, bikeable communities with parks and playgrounds."

He says if you ask what people need for healthy lives, you might be surprised by the answer.

“Our priority right now is figuring out how we can get a bus stop in our community so we can get on the bus and go to work,” says Benjamin. “And you can’t engage that community until you fix that transportation problem.”

Professor Pescosolido says solutions that follow the Indiana study will take the whole person into account.

“Because even if you come up with the most brilliant prevention strategies, if the people who you're targeting don't want it don't like the way you're doing it, it's going to be useless,” says Pescosolido.

This type of study focuses on what researchers call the social determinants of health.

“When we talk about the social determinants, we’re talking about that community responsibility to help our neighbors and ourselves to be more healthy,” says Benjamin.

The Person to Person study is part of a larger Indiana University initiative with ambitious goals. By the year 2020, it aims to cure at least one cancer, one childhood disease and find a preventative solution to one chronic illness.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.