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Predictive Health Institute

How the fetal environment affects long-term health

David Barker, MD, PhD

Why do some people, given the same apparent set of risk factors, develop certain diseases and others do not? British scientist David Baker, MD, PhD, is examining this question from a unique perspective.

Barker, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, is a pioneer in a field known as fetal programming. Fetal programming is the process in which environmental influences during prenatal development alter the body’s structures—for life.

He and other experts spoke on the fundamentals of the subject recently at the first Predicting Lifespan Health Conference at Emory University. “What we’re really looking for is just a few core mechanisms, which are linked to early human development and lead to a plethora of disorders,” says Barker.

Emerging evidence suggests that chronic diseases of adult life, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, have their origin through fetal programming, explains Michelle Lampl, associate director of the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute. “These diseases and others are initiated by adverse influences before birth,” says Lampl.

Speakers addressed fetal programming and the placenta, long-term cardiovascular disease and kidney function in low birth-weight babies, epigenetics and immunity, as well as postnatal influences from infant diet and growth patterns.

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Some thoughts on the pursuit of happiness

Corey Keyes, PhD

What does it truly mean to be in good mental health? How are good mental health and mental illness connected? That is, does being in good mental health simply mean the absence of mental illness, or is there more to it than that? And how do people achieve a healthy state of both body and mind?

These are some of the complex questions Emory researchers brought to the fore in a discussion over lunch last month.

Speaker Corey Keyes, an Emory sociologist, made clear the absence of illness does not necessarily mean the presence of health. He noted that the ancient Greeks batted around the subject of mental health, specifically, happiness. Some championed emotions and pleasures as a path to happiness, others tranquility, freedom and reflection. Read more

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From the Predictive Health Symposium

Predictive Health logoEmory and Georgia Tech kicked off their fifth annual predictive health symposium, “Human Health: Molecules to Mankind,” Dec. 14-15. Researchers, physicians, health care workers, and interested community members were treated to some intriguing and provocative findings and commentary.

Emory President James Wagner and Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson introduced the symposium, along with Fred Sanfilippo, MD, PhD, CEO of Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center. Sanfilippo emphasized that predictive-personalized health is one of the most innovative and promising solutions to our current health care crisis. Medicine today stands at the brink of an achievable goal to tackle the most serious issues facing the health of humans – the ability to predict, reduce, and in many cases eliminate the specific illnesses we each face.

To achieve this goal, he said, we must understand why each of us has a different risk and response to diseases and their treatment, based on our unique differences in biology, behavior and environment. And then we have to use that knowledge to determine the right treatment at the right time for each individual.

Keynote speaker Penny Pilgram George, president of the George Family Foundation and co-founder of the the Bravewell Collaborative, said, “We currently have a disease management system based on episodic care, which means we treat symptoms instead of problems…True healing can only begin when we correctly diagnose the problem and treat the root cause.”

We know we could prevent half of chronic illness, said George by simply teaching people to eat nutritionally, adopt health habits such as nonsmoking, build positive relationships, live and work in nontoxic environments, practice stress reduction, stay fit through some form of exercise, and be purposely engaged in life. If we only treat disease after it occurs and do not promote health, we will have missed the whole point. We need to create a culture of health and well being.

And this from W. Andrew Faucett, director of the genomics and public health program at Emory, who cautioned that although many personalized genetic tests are now available through numerous sources, individuals and clinicians have to weigh the benefits, risks, and usefulness of this evolving technology. People may not even want to know some things revealed by genetic testing, and not everything revealed may be clinically useful or related to disease risk. For example, matters such as one’s true ancestry or revelations concerning one’s paternity may unexpectedly come to light. Furthermore, the accuracy of personalized genetic testing should be carefully considered. Also, a negative result is never truly negative, because there are so many factors involved and some of them can change.

Faucett also spoke about the differences between relative risk and absolute risk. “Anytime you’re talking about genetic risk for disease, you have to present risk in multiple ways,” Faucett said.

Kenneth Thorpe, chair of health policy and management at Emory, talked about the elements of health reform that may be getting lost in the reform process– redesigning the delivery system to prevent and avert the development of disease. Thorpe focused on Medicare because he says, it’s “the most acute offender of the system.” That is, it encompasses some of the most difficult problems that health care reform faces. The typical Medicare patient, he said, is an overweight hypertensive diabetic with back problems, high cholesterol, asthma, arthritis, and pulmonary disease. And that typical patient sees two different primary physicians, a multitude of specialists, and fills 30 different medications. Yet, Medicare does nothing to coordinate the patient’s care. As a result, preventable admissions and readmissions rates are “off the charts,” he says. But, data show that coordination could cut those rates in half.

Because today’s patients have chronic health care conditions that require medical management, said Thorpe, the hope is to develop a preventive and personalized health plan that identifies problems before they manifest and employs care coordinators to guide patients while they’re at home.

And Paul Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, says health care has changed as more and more aspects of ordinary life or behaviors are being redefined as medical. For example, being drunk and disorderly has become alcoholism. Now, virtually all of life is being redefined in biological terms, he says. And that has led to an increase in health care costs. We have an enormous amount of new things that we are calling illness, and we expect this health care system to treat them, he says. “We are creating a new category of disease called presymptomatic.”

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An invitation to be healthy and stay healthy

Predictive Health blog photoThere’s a place in Midtown Atlanta called the Center for Health Discovery and Well Being, where people can go to be healthy and stay healthy.

This fresh approach to wellness marks a new model of healthcare called predictive health, which focuses on defining and maintaining health rather than treating disease.

The Center for Health Discovery and Well Being collects and analyzes physical, medical and lifestyle histories, and up to 50 different blood and plasma tests to create a personalized health action plan for each participant. Participants also act as research partners, as data from their assessments is used to discover and develop predictive markers of health and well being. Those markers are ultimately used to create health-related interventions. What’s more, the center is part of a research partnership between Emory and Georgia Tech called the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute.

Located on the 18th floor of the Medical Office Tower (MOT) at Emory University Hospital Midtown, the center occupies an architecturally innovative atmosphere that includes flowing spaces, soothing colors, and a big city view.

Healthy individuals, including those with well-controlled chronic conditions, may enroll in the Center.

The Center for Health Discovery and Well Being web site offers detailed information, testimonials, and an application for participation.

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