scientific research and advances

Vitamin E protects critical nutrient, prevents neurologic damage and death in embryos

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have discovered that a dietary deficiency of vitamin E in laboratory animals can cause significant neurological impairment in developing embryos, as well as physical abnormalities and embryonic death.

The study suggests that one mechanism leading to this damage may be loss of the role vitamin E plays in protecting levels of DHA, one of the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids that plays a crucial role in brain and cellular development.

The work, by scientists in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, was done with zebrafish, a vertebrate that has neurologic development very similar to humans. They also have dietary needs that are more similar to humans than some other animal models.

In these fish, vitamin E-deficient embryos did not respond correctly to visual cues, had severe physical abnormalities as early as two days after fertilization, and many died before the end of five days.

The findings were published in Redox Biology, in work supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

They take on special significance, researchers say, because more than 90 percent of the adults in the United States who do not take supplements have diets deficient in vitamin E.

“DHA in a developing embryo is very important for cell signaling and membrane development,” said Melissa McDougall, an OSU graduate research assistant in the Linus Pauling Institute and the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, and lead author on this publication.

“Our research showed that adequate levels of vitamin E are important in preventing depletion of DHA in the embryo.

“Without enough DHA, there was also evidence for disruption of the structural integrity of cell membranes as a whole. It appears that vitamin E protects these critical lipids, such as DHA, from excessive depletion that can cause physical and behavioral damage.”

The study showed loss of locomotor activity in vitamin E-deficient embryos as a measure of impaired behavior. Vitamin E-deficient embryos were 82 percent less responsive to a light/dark stimulus.

Past research done elsewhere with rodents, McDougall said, has correlated low DHA levels with less memory and intelligence, and one study in Bangladesh with vitamin E-deficient pregnant women showed a higher level of miscarriage.

The recommended daily allowance of vitamin E for human adults is 15 milligrams a day, and the typical American diet rarely provides that. Vitamin E is most common in nuts, seeds, some leafy greens like spinach, and a few varieties of vegetable oils like sunflower and canola. Low-fat diets also present a special challenge in getting enough vitamin E.

Not all pre-natal vitamins even include vitamin E, McDougall said, although some of the better ones are now including not only vitamin E but also supplements of DHA, a nutrient most common in fatty fish. It’s worth noting, she said, that vitamin E cannot serve its role in protecting DHA if there is inadequate dietary DHA to begin with.

Most human brain development occurs during pregnancy, and some of the most important neurologic development happens during the first trimester.

The corresponding author on this publication was Maret Traber, the Helen P. Rumbel Professor for Micronutrient Research in the Linus Pauling Institute. Other collaborators were from the OSU College of Pharmacy, the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory, the OSU Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, and the OSU Environmental Health Sciences Center.


Story By: 

Maret Traber, 541-737-7977


Multimedia Downloads


Xanthohumol in lab tests lowers cholesterol, blood sugar and weight gain

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recent study at Oregon State University has identified specific intake levels of xanthohumol, a natural flavonoid found in hops, that significantly improved some of the underlying markers of metabolic syndrome in laboratory animals and also reduced weight gain.

The findings were published in a special issue of Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics that was focused on “Polyphenols and Health,” and they suggest a possible new approach to issues such as human obesity, high cholesterol and elevated glucose.

Combinations of these problems, collectively known as metabolic syndrome, are linked to some of the major health issues and causes of death in the developed world today - especially cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.

In this research, laboratory mice were fed a high-fat diet, and given varying levels of xanthohumol. Compared to animals given none of this supplement, the highest dosage of xanthohumol given to laboratory rats cut their LDL, or “bad” cholesterol 80 percent; their insulin level 42 percent; and their level of IL-6, a biomarker of inflammation, 78 percent.

Because they were still growing, eating a rich diet, gaining weight and becoming obese, the weight of the lab animals increased, but by 22 percent less in those receiving xanthohumol, even though all animals ate the same amount of food. Intake of xanthohumol appears to increase their oxygen consumption and metabolic rate, with implications for weight control.

“This is the first time we’ve seen one compound with the potential to address so many health problems,” said Cristobal Miranda, a research assistant professor with OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute and lead author on this study. “These were very dramatic improvements.”

More research will be required to show safety and efficacy in humans, the researchers said.

“Work is still needed to further demonstrate the safety of high doses of xanthohumol, but dosages 15-30 times higher than we used have already been given to animals with no apparent problems,” said Fred Stevens, a professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy, principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute, and corresponding author on the research.

“After further study, this might provide an effective treatment for metabolic syndrome at a very low cost.”

This study for the first time also identified one of the mechanisms of action of xanthohumol – it appears to decrease plasma levels of PCSK9, a protein that plays a role in cholesterol levels. Lowering levels of PCSK9 should increase the clearance of LDL cholesterol from the blood.

Metabolic syndrome is defined by clinical diagnosis of three or more of several conditions, including abdominal obesity, elevated lipids, high blood pressure, pro-inflammatory state, a pro-thrombotic state, and insulin resistance or impaired glucose tolerance. About 25-34 percent of the adults in the United States meet these criteria, putting them at significantly increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.

Direct health care costs arising from obesity or related disorders account for up to 10 percent of U.S. health care expenditures, the researchers noted in their study.

Xanthohumol has been the subject of considerable research for its potential health benefits, as have other flavonoids such as those found in tea, garlic, chocolate, apples and blueberries.

Xanthohumol is found naturally in hops and beer, but the highest level used in this research was 60 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. This corresponds to a human equivalent dose of 350 milligrams per day for a 70-kilogram person, which far exceeds any amount that could be obtained by ordinary dietary intake. A level that high would equate to a beer intake of 3,500 pints per day for a human adult.

However, that amount of xanthohumol could readily be obtained in a dietary supplement that could be taken once a day.

This work was supported by the Linus Pauling Institute; OSU College of Pharmacy; Hop Steiner, Inc.; the Buhler-Wang Research Fund; and the National Institutes of Health.

Story By: 

Cristobal Miranda, 541-737-5512


Multimedia Downloads

Artery disease


Study finds lack of diversity among fisheries scientists

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers who study fish put a high value on biodiversity in the field, yet a new study found a surprising lack of diversity among fisheries scientists themselves.

According to the 2010 United States Census, 51 percent of the people in the U.S. are women. That same year, a study of Ph.D. students in the biological sciences documented that 52 percent of the students pursuing doctorates were women – roughly the same percentage.

However, the new study by researchers at Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service found that roughly even split soon disappears – in both federal government positions and in academic institutions. The researchers found that 74 percent of federal fisheries scientists or managers are men, as were 73 percent of the university assistant professors, 71 percent of associate professors and 85 percent of full professors.

The lack of diversity is even more pronounced when analyzed by race. In 2010, the U.S. population was 64 percent white, and participation in biological sciences Ph.D. programs was 69 percent white. Yet only roughly 10 percent of all fisheries science, manager and faculty positions were occupied by minorities.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Bioscience.

“It is clear that the fisheries science culture is one dominated by white men,” said Ivan Arismendi, an Oregon State University research faculty scientist and lead author on the study.  “There has been a lot of concern expressed in recent years about diversity, but the numbers don’t seem to reflect that concern. It is important to begin turning the process today because the hiring we’re doing now will last a generation.”

Brooke Penaluna, a research fish biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and co-author on the study, said the reasons for the disparity are not completely clear.

“We are graduating women on a 50-50 basis in the biological sciences, but the hiring rate is not keeping pace with the degree rate,” Penaluna said. “For some women, it may be the biological clock butting up against the timetable of career advancement. That doesn’t explain the disparity among minorities.

“We need to look more closely at possible institutional biases. Women, for example, have fewer professional publications and are not asked as often by senior-level scientists to publish. And some federal positions may be in geographic locations that are not attractive to all candidates. We need to create environments that are welcoming so people want to stay – and those conversations can be uncomfortable.”

The authors suggest diversity training and a diverse composition of search committees at both the federal and academic institution levels, as well as increasing the pool of female and minority candidates, and programs to insure their success and career advancement.

At Oregon State University, 28 percent of faculty members in fisheries science are women and 16 percent are non-white.  In December of 2015, OSU named Selina Heppell as head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the first female to lead the unit in its 80-year history.

Story By: 

Sources: Ivan Arismendi, 541-750-7443, ivan.arismendi@oregonstate.edu;

Brooke Penaluna, 541-758-8783, brooke.penaluna@oregonstate.edu

Study shows forest thinning changes movement patterns, habitat use by martens

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists who for the first time used global positioning system (GPS) telemetry to monitor the movements of reclusive Pacific martens have discovered that these fierce, tiny mammals tend to avoid open stands of trees resulting from forest thinning.

That could put conservation efforts to protect martens at odds with modern forest management, but the researchers say there is a prescription that may work for both interests: maintaining forest thinning at lower elevations, which are less favored by martens, and preserve more high-elevation forests – which are at less risk for catastrophic wildfire – as complex, marten-friendly stands.

Results of the research, which was conducted in northern California, have just been published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

“There are two main reasons that martens avoid open forests,” said Katie Moriarty, a post-doctoral research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at Oregon State University. “Martens eat a lot of food – up to a quarter of their body weight a day. It would be like you eating 100 hamburgers. They need downed logs and dense sapling cover to hunt successfully.

“Since they are the size of a gray squirrel, the woods are a dangerous place. They need to avoid being eaten. And for them, a wide-open forest is like being dropped into Jurassic Park filled with velociraptors. They just won’t stay in those areas.”

The study is important because Pacific martens are considered an indicator species for ecosystem health, said Clinton Epps, an associate professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and co-author on the study. The key to the research was the use of GPS to observe a finer scale of the martens’ movements.

“We were able to collect the locations of tagged martens so frequently that we could infer their movements through tree stands rather than relying on a typical radio telemetry study,” Epps said. “There was clear evidence that their movement is affected by forest characteristics in different seasons.

“The spatial configuration of habitat is very important in these systems, even at the scale of an individual animal’s movement. The martens typically avoided simplified stands and they behaved differently if they used them.”

Much of the research was conducted in Lassen National Forest, which has the lowest documented annual survival rates for martens in North America – about 37 percent of them die each year. Forest lands are actively thinned, Moriarty said, although there is no established link between the survival rate and forest management practices. “We can’t assume a causal relationship,” she said.

What the researchers can document is how martens move through different forest types.

“Martens strongly selected complex forest stands over simple stands and openings,” said Moriarty, who is with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Olympia, Washington. “Their movements were slower and more sinuous in complex stands with lots of cover. When they were in the open, their movements were more erratic and linear. Those altered patterns of movement in open forests appear to negatively affect the ability of martens to forage without increase risk of predation.”

Martens are one of the smaller members of the weasel family, weighing between one and two-and-a-half pounds – and they look something like a cross between a fox and a mink. Martens are “smaller than a Chihuahua,” Moriarty said, “but have the attitude of a pit bull. They really have a little man’s complex.”

Small but fierce predators, martens feast on snowshoe hare, chipmunks, voles and other small mammals, and also consume bird eggs and berries. They can survive rugged winters with snow more than a dozen feet deep.

“If martens are thriving in an area, that usually is a sign of a healthy ecosystem,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty’s work has paid off in more than one way. In 2008, while studying martens in Tahoe National Forest, she gathered photographic evidence of a wolverine – the first sighting of the animal in California in 75 years.

The marten research was funded by Lassen National Forest with assistance from the Pacific Southwest Research Station and OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Story By: 

Katie Moriarty, 360-753-7716, kmoriarty02@fs.fed.us;

Clint Epps, 541-737-2478, Clinton.epps@oregonstate.edu

West Coast scientists sound alarm for changing ocean chemistry

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The ocean chemistry along the West Coast of North America is changing rapidly because of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the governments of Oregon, California, Washington and British Columbia can take actions now to offset and mitigate the effects of these changes.

That is the conclusion of a 20-member panel of leading West Coast ocean scientists, who presented a comprehensive report on Monday outlining a series of recommendations to address the increase in ocean acidification and hypoxia, or extremely low oxygen levels.

“Ocean acidification is a global problem that is having a disproportionate impact on productive West Coast ecosystems,” said Francis Chan, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-chair of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel. “There has been an attitude that there is not much we can do about this locally, but that just isn’t true. A lot of the solutions will come locally and through coordinated regional efforts.”

Ocean acidification and hypoxia are distinct phenomena that trigger a wide range of effects on marine ecosystems. They frequently occur together and represent two important facets of global ocean changes that have important implications for Oregon’s coastal oceans.

Among the panel’s recommendations:

  • Develop new benchmarks for near-shore water quality as existing criteria were not developed to protect marine organisms from acidification;
  • Improve methods of removing carbon dioxide from seawater through the use of kelp beds, eel grass and other plants;
  • Enhance coastal ecosystems’ ability to adapt to changing ocean chemistry through better resource management, including marine reserves, adaptive breeding techniques for shellfish, and other methods.

“Communities around the country are increasingly vulnerable to ocean acidification and long-term environmental changes," said Richard Spinrad, chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and former OSU vice president for research. “It is crucial that we comprehend how ocean chemistry is changing in different places, so we applaud the steps the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel has put forward in understanding and addressing this issue. We continue to look to the West Coast as a leader on understanding ocean acidification.”

Chan said regional awareness of the impact of changing ocean chemistry started in Oregon. Some of the first impacts were seen about 15 years ago when the state began experiencing seasonal hypoxia, or low-oxygen water, leading to some marine organism die-offs. Then the oyster industry was confronted with high mortality rates of juvenile oysters because of increasingly acidified water. It turns out that Oregon was on the leading edge of a much larger problem.

“It was a wakeup call for the region, which since has spread up and down the coast,” said Chan, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in OSU’s College of Science.

California responded to this call, and in partnership with Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, convened a panel of scientific experts to provide advice on the issue. The panel worked with federal and state agencies, local organizations and higher education institutions to identify concerns about ocean acidification and hypoxia, then developed a series of recommendations and actions that can be taken today.

“One of the things all of the scientists agree on is the need for better ocean monitoring or ‘listening posts,’ up and down the West Coast,” said Jack Barth, a professor and associate dean in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a member of the panel. “It is a unifying issue that will require participation from state and federal agencies, as well as universities, ports, local governments and NGOs.”

Barth said one such “listening post” has been the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Netarts Bay, Oregon, which was able to solve the die-off of juvenile oysters with the help of OSU scientists George Waldbusser and Burke Hales, who both served on the 20-member panel. Together, they determined that the ocean chemistry changed throughout the day and by taking in seawater in the afternoon, when photosynthesis peaked and CO2 levels were lower, juvenile oysters could survive.

The West Coast is a hotspot for acidification because of coastal upwelling, which brings nutrient-rich, low-oxygen and high carbon dioxide water from deep in the water column to the surface near the coast. These nutrients fertilize the water column, trigger phytoplankton blooms that die and sink to the bottom, producing even more carbon dioxide and lowering oxygen further.

“We’re just starting to see the impacts now, and we need to accelerate what we know about how increasingly acidified water will impact our ecosystems,” said panel member Waldo Wakefield, a research fisheries biologist with NOAA Fisheries in Newport and courtesy associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

“There’s a lot at stake. West Coast fisheries are economic drivers of many coastal communities, and the seafood we enjoy depends on a food web that is likely to be affected by more corrosive water.”

Last year, OSU researchers completed the deployment of moorings, buoys and gliders as part of the Endurance Array – a component of the $386 million National Science Foundation-funded Ocean Observatories Initiative, created to address ocean issues including acidification.

These and other ocean-monitoring efforts will be important to inform policy-makers about where to best focus their adaptation and mitigation strategies.

“The panel’s findings provide a road map to help us prepare for the changes ahead,” said Gabriela Goldfarb, natural resource policy adviser to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. “How Oregon and the West Coast address ocean acidification will inform those confronting this issue around the country and world.”

“With the best scientific recommendations in hand from the science panel, we now have the information on which to base our future management decisions,” added Caren Braby, marine resource manager at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “These are practical recommendations natural resource managers and communities can use to ensure we continue to have the rich and productive ecosystem Oregonians depend on for healthy fisheries, our coastal culture and economy.”

Story By: 

Francis Chan, 541-844-8415, chanft@science.oregonstate.edu;

Jack Barth, 541-737-1607, barth@coas.oregonstate.edu

Multimedia Downloads


An oyster at Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery

“Community solar” systems may add savings to local, cooperative energy projects

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Part of the future of solar energy, especially for residential use, may be small “community-based” systems in which neighbors join together in the construction and use of solar systems to optimize the energy produced in their neighborhood – and share in the benefits.

New research by engineers at Oregon State University indicate that an optimal development of neighborhood solar energy might increase the total electricity produced by 5-10 percent, a significant gain by the standards of solar energy efficiency. At the same time, it can reduce the variability and unpredictability of the solar resource.

With this approach, the use of various rooftops and land used for solar energy production may vary from house to house, depending upon such issues as the home’s orientation, roof slope and shading from trees or other structures. Quite simply, some structures lend themselves better than others to solar energy.

“An approach such as this makes the most sense in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of variation in terms of sun and shadow, and the orientation of buildings,” said Mahmoud Shakouri, a doctoral candidate in the OSU College of Engineering.

“The conventional approach to residential solar energy is to look at each home as an individual package, building its own solar system whether or not that’s a good location. But by grouping 10 or 20 houses in a neighborhood, all of whose owners are interested in solar energy, we can optimize the use and placement of solar panels and let everyone share in the savings.”

The idea has been considered for some time, Shakouri said, but failed to generate much headway in the United States due to limited interest in solar energy, high initial costs, and tax credits or incentives that fail to recognize this approach to optimizing the solar resource.

Findings on this issue have been published recently in the journals of Applied Energy and Data in Brief, and a “decision support model” has been created that homeowners could use to help consider the best options for their neighborhood. Free software to help implement such a strategy is also available from the U.S. Department of Energy. Collaborating on this research was Hyun Woo Lee at the University of Washington.

Initial solar installations can be expensive, making it all the more important to maximize the long-term output of the systems. But such systems are also durable and pollution free, usually with a performance guarantee of up to 25 years, using a technology that produces no greenhouse gases.

Residential energy use is also a big-ticket item – in the United States, the building sector accounts for 40 percent of total energy consumption, and residential buildings consume more than half of the energy in the building sector. By 2035, the federal government estimates that 74 percent of the energy consumed in residences will be in the form of electricity, even as two thirds of the nation’s electricity is still produced by coal or natural gas that are helping to cause global warming.

The new approach developed at OSU, Shakouri said, actually borrows formulas from economic theory. This approach has long been used in the stock market in the form of portfolio investment, to maximize profit while reducing risks. Given the high initial cost of some solar systems – averaging about $20,000 for a 4 kilowatt residential system – reducing risk is of considerable value to many people interested in the technology.

Studies done at OSU included a case study of collaborative solar energy among 24 homes in a neighborhood in Corvallis, Ore., which has sunny summers but often-cloudy and rainy winters, not exactly the nation’s best bet in terms of solar energy production. Even there, this approach increased the annual electricity output of the homes by 4.6 percent and reduced the volatility in electrical output by 4.3 percent.

Use of approaches such as this may become more common as the efficiency of solar technology improves, more people become aware of its potential, and legislation or policies are changed to better enable community solar projects, researchers say. More work is also needed to determine how to contractually share expenses, profits and benefits among cooperating neighbors.

Story By: 

Mahmoud Shakouri



Multimedia Downloads

Bayview Home
Residential solar energy

An ancient killer: ancestral malarial organisms traced to age of dinosaurs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new analysis of the prehistoric origin of malaria suggests that it evolved in insects at least 100 million years ago, and the first vertebrate hosts of this disease were probably reptiles, which at that time would have included the dinosaurs.

Malaria, a scourge on human society that still kills more than 400,000 people a year, is often thought to be of more modern origin - ranging from 15,000 to 8 million years old, caused primarily by one genus of protozoa, Plasmodium, and spread by anopheline mosquitoes.

But the ancestral forms of this disease used different insect vectors and different malarial strains, and may literally have helped shape animal survival and evolution on Earth, according to George Poinar, Jr., a researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University.

Poinar suggested in the journal American Entomologist that the origins of this deadly disease, which today can infect animals ranging from humans and other mammals to birds and reptiles, may have begun in an insect such as the biting midge more than 100 million years ago. And in previous work, Poinar and his wife, Roberta, implicated malaria and the evolution of blood-sucking insects as disease vectors that could have played a significant role in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

“Scientists have argued and disagreed for a long time about how malaria evolved and how old it is,” Poinar said. “I think the fossil evidence shows that modern malaria vectored by mosquitoes is at least 20 million years old, and earlier forms of the disease, carried by biting midges, are at least 100 million years old and probably much older.”

Since the sexual reproduction stage of malaria only occurs in insects, Poinar said in the new study that they must be considered the primary hosts of the disease, not the vertebrate animals that they infect with disease-causing protozoa. And he believes the evidence points toward the Gregarinida as a protozoan parasite group that could have been the progenitors of malaria, since they readily infect the insects that vector malaria today.

Understanding the ancient history of malaria evolution, Poinar said, might offer clues to how its modern-day life cycle works, how it evolved, and what might make possible targets to interrupt its transmission through its most common vector, the Anopheles mosquito.

Understanding the evolution of malaria also takes one on a worldwide journey, according to evidence found in insects preserved in amber. Poinar is an international expert in using plant and animal life forms preserved in this semi-precious stone to help learn more about the biology and ecology of the distant past.

Poinar was the first to discover a type of malaria in a 15-20 million-year-old fossil from the New World, in what is now the Dominican Republic. It was the first fossil record of Plasmodium malaria, one type of which is now the strain that infects and kills humans.

Even further back, malaria may have been one of the diseases that arose, along with the evolution of insects, and had a huge impact on animal evolution. In a 2007 book, “What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease and Death in the Cretaceous,” George and Roberta Poinar argued that insects carried diseases that contributed to the widespread extinction of the dinosaurs around the “K-T boundary” about 65 million years ago.

“There were catastrophic events known to have happened around that time, such as asteroid impacts and lava flows,” Poinar said. “But it’s still clear that dinosaurs declined and slowly became extinct over thousands of years, which suggests other issues must also have been at work. Insects, microbial pathogens and vertebrate diseases were just emerging around that same time, including malaria.”

Avian malaria has been implicated in the extinction of many bird species in Hawaii just in recent decades, especially in species with no natural resistance to the disease. Different forms of malaria, which is now known to be an ancient disease, may have been at work many millions of years ago and probably had other implications affecting the outcome of vertebrate survival, Poinar said.

The first human recording of malaria was in China in 2,700 B.C., and some researchers say it may have helped lead to the fall of the Roman Empire. In 2015 there were 214 million cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Immunity does not occur naturally and the search for a vaccine has not yet been achieved.

Story By: 
Multimedia Downloads

Biting midge

Biting midge
with ancestral malaria

Oldest fossil showing Plasmodium malaria
Oldest fossil with
Plasmodium malaria

U.S. adults get failing grade in healthy lifestyle behavior

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Only 2.7 percent of the U.S. adult population achieves all four of some basic behavioral characteristics that researchers say would constitute a “healthy lifestyle” and help protect against cardiovascular disease, a recent study concluded.

In this study, researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi examined how many adults succeed in four general barometers that could help define healthy behavior: a good diet, moderate exercise, a recommended body fat percentage and being a non-smoker. It’s the basic health advice, in other words, that doctors often give to millions of patients all over the world.

Such characteristics are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease as well as many other health problems, such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.

“The behavior standards we were measuring for were pretty reasonable, not super high,” said Ellen Smit, senior author on the study and an associate professor in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “We weren’t looking for marathon runners.”

From the perspective of public health, the findings of the research were not encouraging, Smit said.

“This is pretty low, to have so few people maintaining what we would consider a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “This is sort of mind boggling. There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.”

Part of the value of this study, the researchers said, is that the results are based on a large study group, 4,745 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. It also included several measured behaviors, rather than just relying on self-reported information.

Measurements of activity were done with an accelerometer, a device people wore to determine their actual level of movement, with a goal of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity a week. Blood samples were done to verify a person was a non-smoker. Body fat was measured with sophisticated X-ray absorptiometry, not just a crude measurement based on weight and height. A healthy diet was defined in this study as being in about the top 40 percent of people who ate foods recommended by the USDA.

The lifestyle characteristics were then compared to “biomarkers” of cardiovascular health. Some are familiar, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. Others are more sophisticated, such as C-reactive protein, fasting triglycerides, homocysteine and other data that can provide evidence of cardiovascular risk.

Many people, of course, accomplished one or more of the four basic lifestyle goals, such as not smoking or being adequately active. The most striking finding was how few people accomplished all the goals.

“I would expect that the more healthy lifestyles you have, the better your cardiovascular biomarkers will look,” Smit said.

Indeed, the researchers found that having three or four healthy lifestyles, compared to none, generally was associated with better cardiovascular risk biomarkers, such as lower serum cholesterol and homocysteine levels.  Having at least one or two healthy lifestyle characteristics, compared to none, was also associated with better levels of some cardiovascular risk biomarkers.

Among the other findings of the research:

  • Although having more than one healthy lifestyle behavior is important, specific health characteristics may be most important for particular cardiovascular disease risk factors.
  • For healthy levels of HDL and total cholesterol, the strongest correlation was with normal body fat percentage.
  • A total of 71 percent of adults did not smoke, 38 percent ate a healthy diet, 10 percent had a normal body fat percentage, and 46 percent were sufficiently active.
  • Only 2.7 percent of all adults had all four healthy lifestyle characteristics, while16 percent had three, 37 percent had two, 34 percent had one, and 11 percent had none.
  • Women were more likely to not smoke and eat a healthy diet, but less likely to be sufficiently active.
  • Mexican American adults were more likely to eat a healthy diet than non-Hispanic white or black adults.
  • Adults 60 years and older had fewer healthy characteristics than adults ages 20-39, yet were more likely to not smoke and consume a healthy diet, and less likely to be sufficiently active.

More research is needed, experts say, to identify ways to increase the adoption of multiple healthy lifestyle characteristics among adults.

This study was published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings and was done in collaboration with researchers from the University of Mississippi and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The lead author was Paul Loprinzi, who graduated from OSU and who’s now at the University of Mississippi.

Story By: 

Ellen Smit, 541-737-3833

Multimedia Downloads

Blood pressure
Blood pressure cuff

Ellen Smit, Ph.D., RD

Ellen Smit

Wetland enhancement in Midwest could help reduce catastrophic floods of the future

CORVALLIS, Ore. – According to a new study from Oregon State University, restoration of wetlands in the Midwest has the potential to significantly reduce peak river flows during floods - not only now, but also in the future if heavy rains continue to increase in intensity.

Wetland restoration could also provide a small step toward a hydrologic regime in this region that more closely resembles its historic nature, before roads and cities were constructed, forests were lost, and millions of acres tile-drained to increase agricultural production.

An evaluation of potential wetlands in one watershed in central Indiana found that if just 1.5 percent of the land were used for wetlands, the peak flow of the overall watershed could be reduced by up to 17.5 percent. Also of importance, researchers said, is that expansion of wetlands appears to provide significant benefits across a wide range of possible climate scenarios.

The study was published in Ecological Engineering, in work supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Flood management in the Midwest is now almost entirely concentrated on use of dams and levees,” said Meghna Babbar-Sebens, an assistant professor of civil engineering in the College of Engineering, and the Eric H.I. and Janice Hoffman Faculty Scholar at OSU.

“Wetland construction or restoration could provide a natural and ecological option to help with flood concerns, and serve as an additional tool for flood management. Greater investments in this approach, or similar approaches that increase storage of water in the upper landscape of a watershed, should be seriously considered.”

The new research considered not just the problem now – which is serious – but what the future may bring.

The study used climate models supported by the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program, along with a hydrology model to examine the impact of wetlands during the climate scenarios for a mid-century period from 2041 to 2070. It suggests this central Indiana region could see continued increases in extreme events, such as more extremely hot days during summer and more heavy rain in the wettest 5-day periods.

“There’s some variation in the models, but there’s general agreement that the future will bring more heavy precipitation events,” Babbar-Sebens said. “How we transfer and store runoff on the landscape is going to become even more critical.”

“From the perspective of a decision maker, an advantage of wetland construction is that it would significantly reduce flooding from heavy precipitation in almost every possible scenario. Wetlands are consistently effective.”

An obstacle at this point, she said, is that many incentive programs that support wetland restoration and creation usually focus on ecology, wildlife enhancement and water quality issues – and there are limited funding mechanisms to create upland wetlands for flood management. This limits the economic incentives for farmers and landowners to set aside room for wetlands, especially with the high price of agricultural crops.

New financial models and flood management policies would probably be needed to address this, Babbar-Sebens said.

Deforestation, agriculture and the historic growth of cities with impervious infrastructure have hugely changed the face of the Midwest and its hydrology, leading to frequent floods.

Climate change is now exacerbating that problem. In 2011, Indiana experienced record-breaking heat in seven counties, record-breaking rainfall in 22 counties, and record-breaking snowfall in six counties. The state has been declared a flood disaster area 14 times between 2000 and 2011, compared to only four times in the decade prior to that.

The great Mississippi River flood of 2011 was considered a “500-year event” and caused $2.8 billion in damage. It flooded more than 21,000 homes and businesses and 1.2 million acres of agricultural land, according to a report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Wetlands help reduce some of these flooding problems by storing water away from stream channels and releasing it more slowly, while also improving water quality and providing wildlife habitat. Other studies have shown that wetland construction in the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri river basins could also significantly reduce nitrogen loads in the rivers, which has led to an enormous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

A methodology for evaluating wetlands with respect to historic climate and future climate scenarios, created in this research, should be applicable to other watersheds in the Midwest, researchers said.

Story By: 

Meghna Babbar-Sebens, 541-737-8536

Multimedia Downloads

River wetlands

Southern right whales slowly rebounding, but still decades away from full recovery

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new study has determined that right whales in the Southern Hemisphere were once more abundant than previously thought, making their full recovery from near-extinction another 50 to 100 years away.

An international team of scientists using a combination of catch records from 19th-century logbooks and modern computer modeling techniques concluded that as many as 40,000 right whales once inhabited the waters near New Zealand before whaling drove them to the brink of extinction. As few as 20 mature females were estimated to have survived into the beginning of the 20th century.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“This is the first time we have been able to estimate the pre-whaling abundance for this population of right whales before they were nearly decimated,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and co-author on the study. “Only a handful of whales survived, and those were threatened again in the 1960s by illegal Soviet whaling.

“The waters around New Zealand have been depleted of right whales for nearly 200 years,” added Baker, who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “We have little idea of the ecological role they played prior to whaling, or how they may contribute to ecosystems changes as their population slowly recovers.”

Baker and co-author Nathalie Patenaude initiated the decade-long study of the remnant New Zealand right whale population in 1995, in part because the region has one of the best historical catch records from whaling logbooks and other sources. Southern right whales were particularly vulnerable to exploitation because they are slow swimmers with strong fidelity to sheltered bays for calving, making them “predictable and easy targets,” the authors note.

The term “right whale” was coined because they were so easy to hunt.

“Once we had a good idea about the likely range of catches, we could do a full reconstruction using current estimates of abundance and population increase to measure the population’s trajectory through time and how large it was,” said Jennifer Jackson, lead author on the paper. Jackson, a former post-doctoral fellow with Baker at Oregon State, is now with the British Antarctic Survey.

The researchers’ analysis concluded that prior to whaling right whales were abundant in New Zealand waters, numbering about 28,000 to 33,000 individuals. If most of the right whales harvested in the southwest Pacific Ocean were New Zealand whales, the population rises to 47,000 whales.

“Put in context, the estimated size of the current New Zealand population is less than 12 percent of these numbers,” Jackson said.

Catch records of whaling from the early 19th-century were patchy and required a bit of detective work, said Emma Carroll of St. Andrews University, also a co-author on the study.

“We went back through early colonial New Zealand historical records and whaling logbooks, and even had to cross-reference what ships had been seen where to get an understanding of the scale of operations during the winter in New Zealand,” Carroll said.

Funding for the study was provided by the Royal Society of New Zealand, The Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trust, Oregon State University’s general research fund, and the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

Story By: 

Scott Baker, scott.baker@oregonstate.edu; 541-867-0255