Heritage College steps out in lifestyle medicine research

Sep 24, 2018

Researchers at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine are working to provide scientific evidence supporting lifestyle medicine as an effective tool for tackling some of the nation’s biggest health problems. A recent study suggests that two intervention programs aimed at encouraging healthier lifestyles can have a positive effect on how well participants eat – which could result in lower health care costs.

Chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease are on the rise. Evidence confirms that these conditions can be managed, prevented or even reversed by making lifestyle changes, and physicians are increasingly prescribing nutrition, exercise and stress management. Lifestyle medicine is a specialty that seeks to treat illness and prevent disease through this approach. 

In the recently completed research, investigators led by Heritage College faculty member David Drozek, D.O. (’83), tested two intervention programs – the Complete Health Improvement Program and Full Plate Living. The researchers attempted to measure and compare how successful participants were with each of the two programs and how well they adhered to each. Though lifestyle intervention programs typically focus on nutrition education, promotion of physical activity and stress reduction, the Heritage College study looked primarily at the diet component.

Putting two programs to the test

This pilot study was partly funded by a $75,000 award from the Ardmore Institute of Health and the Lifestyle Medicine Institute, the respective creators of FP and CHIP.

“AIH and LMI came together to fund this research at the Heritage College because of a shared commitment to establish lifestyle medicine as a primary approach to prevent and reverse chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and their co-morbidities,” said Kevin Brown, president of AIH, when the grant was announced. “The long-term vision of the research is to improve health outcomes of chronic and life-limiting conditions through effective lifestyle intervention.”

The study found that participants in both programs showed average reductions in consumption of energy, fat, cholesterol, and animal-based protein foods, and increased intake of fiber, water, vegetables, and plant-based protein, compared to a control group.

The researchers also asked participants about exposure to adverse childhood events, such as emotional abuse, serious financial difficulty or homelessness. More than 88 percent reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood event, and higher scores in this area were positively correlated with the number of medical/psychiatric conditions and the number of medications prescribed as adults. Patients’ adverse childhood event scores also appeared to be a factor in whether they completed the lifestyle intervention program.

Drozek, assistant professor of surgery at the Heritage College and a lifestyle medicine physician and researcher, was principal investigator. Posters highlighting both sets of findings from the research were presented at an Ohio University research day, and a summary poster has been submitted to a national conference.

Lifestyle medicine works at any income level

Drozek has co-authored journal articles based on other lifestyle medicine-related research, two of which were recently cited in an online video about CHIP from the website Nutritionfacts.org titled, “A Workplace Wellness Program that Works.”

These two papers, published in Advances in Preventive Medicine and The American Journal of Managed Care, address socioeconomic factors in CHIP’s effectiveness. Noting that CHIP attracts mostly employed, middle-class people with the means to enroll – as well as a level of education that helps them understand and apply the program’s principles – researchers in the first study wanted to find out if CHIP would work as well with people from a high-poverty region like Appalachian Ohio. It did.

Among study participants, researchers reported, “Chronic disease-related risk factors responded favorably and rapidly to the recommended lifestyle changes towards a healthier whole food, plant-based diet coupled with daily exercise.” And these reductions in risk factors such as cholesterol and body mass index were similar to those reported among CHIP participants in more affluent parts of the country.

The second study asked whether people who take part in CHIP classes for free are less committed, and thus get less benefit, than paying participants with financial “skin in the game.” The study found no statistical difference in outcomes based on who was paying.

“Those who received funding through their employer or a scholarship experienced similar effects from a lifestyle intervention program as those who paid out of pocket,” the study reported – indicating that “the benefit of CHIP for reducing chronic disease risk factors exists independent of payment source, and thus suggests its benefit may cross socioeconomic lines.”

Why lifestyle medicine matters

“Lifestyle medicine research is more important than ever, as physicians are bringing evidence-based health and wellness practices into their patient care,” said Darlene Berryman, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., associate dean for research and innovation at the Heritage College. And Drozek pointed out that some of the nation’s most serious health problems, including diabetes, can be effectively combated through lifestyle changes, with the potential for major savings in health care costs.

“Diabetes is the single largest health care expense among the chronic diseases, all of which consume approximately 86 percent of our nation’s health care spending,” Drozek noted.