New health center third in U.S.

In an effort to study the connection between behavior and chronic disease, an $11.5 million grant will fund a new health research center at the university.

The Vermont Center on Behavior and Health (VCBH) will be one of three centers in the nation that address the issue of behavioral health from a behavioral economics perspective, a press release published by Jennifer Nachbur, Sept. 16 stated.

Planning for the VCBH started Sept. 19 when the National Institute on General Medical Sciences granted a five-year award for the creation of the center.

The award known as Centers in Biomedical Research Excellence can be renewed for two more times for a total of 15 years of support from the National Institute of Health, according to Stephen Higgins, professor and director of the VCBH.

“[The grant will be used] for many things, but mostly to support five research projects on behavior and health,” Higgins said.

Among these projects, two will focus on the effect of financial incentives on participation in cardiac rehabilitation programs for people who have suffered recent heart problems, Higgins said.

“These projects will try to increase understanding of what makes people vulnerable to unhealthy lifestyles, and more effective behavior change interventions for those at risk for serious behavior-health problems,” he said.

Researchers at the center will study the effect of socioeconomic factors affecting health care decisions as well as the use of incentives for promoting healthier alternatives in vulnerable populations, University Communications press release stated.

 “Unhealthy personal behaviors – substance abuse, physical inactivity, obesity – account for 40 percent of premature deaths in the U.S. annually and substantially increase healthcare costs and health disparities by being overrepresented among economically disadvantaged populations,” Higgins said.

The VCBH will benefit students by educating them on healthy lifestyle choices, as well as presenting the possibility of acquiring part-time employment as research assistants, he said.

“Unhealthy lifestyles are having a huge negative impact on U.S. population health,” Higgins said. “Despite spending more money on health care than any other nation, U.S. population health is relatively poor compared to other industrialized countries. Unhealthy lifestyle choices are the number one reason for that.”

Burlington is consistently ranked one of the healthiest cities in the U.S., making it a fitting place for this kind of research.

First-year Sarah Bullock said she agrees with Higgins and thinks that the center is not only beneficial to the University, but to the country as a whole.

“People in America do not live the healthiest lifestyles and anything to turn them around is needed and appreciated,” Bullock said.