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Section Editors' Highlights

New Content ItemWelcome to the BMC Public Health Section Editors' Highlights page. Here, the Section Editors have chosen recent papers published in their section of the journal that are of particular importance or interest to highlight to a wider audience.

Chronic disease epidemiology

Severity of depression, anxious distress and the risk of type 2 diabetes – a population-based cohort study in Sweden

Chosen by: Jianguang Ji

The established association between depression and type 2 diabetes calls for clinical attention, especially in recent decades with an increasing prevalence of depression. It is thus necessary to explore whether the observed association is causal and to explore the underlying mechanisms by using prospective longitudinal data and by stratifying the observed association by various severity of depression (dose-response relationship). A total of 10 thousand individuals who lived in Stockholm County, Sweden have answered the postal questionnaires on depression and factors related to mental health in 1998–2000 in which depression was evaluated using the Major Depression Inventory. These individuals were followed until 2015 to identify their subsequent type 2 diabetes by using a few national registers. Deleskog and her colleagues did find that individuals with depression were at 1.48 times higher risk of type 2 diabetes after adjusting for potential confounders. It should be noted that the risk of type 2 diabetes was increased to 1.72 for individuals with severe depression, suggesting a causal association. In addition, they found that individuals with depression and concurrent moderate/severe anxious distress had 1.73 times higher risk. This study added strong evidence that depression is a strong risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. However, further studies are highly needed to understand underlying mechanisms, as the authors acknowledged.

Energy balance-related behaviors

Social network influences and the adoption of obesity-related behaviours in adults: a critical interpretative synthesis review

Chosen by: Janice Thompson

Obesity is globally recognized as a major public health concern. The risk factors contributing to obesity are numerous and involve a complex interplay between biological, personal, socio-cultural, and environmental factors that affect one’s ability to change obesity-related behaviors. A multitude of interventions targeting individual diet and physical activity behaviors have been implemented to date. Results from these studies indicate that although short-term weight loss is achievable, longer-term sustainability of behavior changes and weight loss remain elusive. Designing and implementing interventions that incorporate an understanding of the complex interactions between the various influences linked with obesity could enhance adherence to health-promoting behaviors and lead to sustained weight loss.  The authors of the present study conducted a critical interpretive synthesis review of qualitative, quantitative and mixed-methods data, using a unique approach to further our understanding of how social network properties and processes, combined with environmental influences, affect the adoption of healthy and unhealthy obesity-related behaviors in adults. The data-driven themes identified included meso-micro network processes, contextual and individual factors, and types of social ties and properties as the key drivers of both healthy and unhealthy obesity-related behaviors. The analyses indicated that these drivers do not act independently. This led to the creation of two mechanisms, developing multi-agent coalitions that consider cross-level influences. As concluded by the authors, the results of this study emphasize the complexities of a dynamic, multi-level set of influences acting across a vast system of social connections that contribute to obesity. These findings can be used to inform the design of future interventions and implementation of policies targeting obesity-related behaviors.   

The Daily Mile as a public health intervention: a rapid ethnographic assessment of uptake and implementation in South London, UK

Chosen by: Richard Rosenkranz

To ensure good health, proper development, and the primary prevention of chronic disease, current World Health Organization guidelines indicate that children and adolescents should accumulate 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day. Many children and youth fail to achieve this standard, and long periods of time spent sedentary in school may contribute to the problem of insufficient physical activity levels.  The Daily Mile (TDM)--which originated with the idea of having schoolchildren run for 15 minutes each day--has proven to be a simple and a popular program designed to increase children’s physical activity during the school day. Using observations, interviews, and focus groups, the present study's authors sought to determine how TDM was being implemented within schools in South London.  In this study, there were no differences between schools that adopted TDM and those that did not adopt TDM, with regard to enrollment size, socio-economic status, or proportion of ethnic minorities. Results showed that the desire to address obesity was a reason given for adoption of TDM, although a range of health and educational benefits were also anticipated. A considerable amount of adaptations to TDM were evident at levels ranging from individual pupil to class, school, and bureau. The authors concluded that TDM is typical of interventions for improving the health of the public, in that it is often implemented in the context of wider strategies, and in variable ways. Understanding the variability of intervention adoption and implementation adaptations are crucial for determining how TDM may impact physical activity levels within the population of schoolchildren.

Social network influences and the adoption of obesity-related behaviours in adults: a critical interpretative synthesis review

Chosen by: Carol Maher

The rising prevalence of obesity is leading global health challenge, and existing intervention approaches have been insufficient to turn the tide. Evidence suggests that obesity spreads through social networks, and as such, interest is growing in interventions that harness social networks.  

This study set out to synthesise studies of obesity and social networks to improve the understanding of how social network properties and processes influence the adoption of both positive and negative obesity-related behaviours. An extensive search strategy identified twenty-four previous studies, which were then synthesised using a critical interpretative synthesis methodology, a novel approach which encompasses both quantitative and qualitative data sources. A wide variety of social network properties and processes were identified, including social support, social pressure, homophily (the tendency of pairs of individuals to share similar characteristic), diffusion (i.e. spreading of health information via social networks), and social comparison. Overall, the authors arrange the data into three data-driven themes, badged “meso-micro networking processes for the adoption of obesity-related behaviours”, “contextual and individual factors of obesity-related behaviours” and “types of ties and properties that influence the adoption of obesity-related behaviours”.  

The literature regarding social networks and health is complex and spans a wide range of academic disciplines. This novel synthesis offers new insights into the role of social networks in obesity.​

Environmental health

Assessing the micro-scale environment using Google Street View: the Virtual Systematic Tool for Evaluating Pedestrian Streetscapes (Virtual-STEPS)

Chosen by: David Stieb

There is considerable recent interest in the impact of the built environment on physical activity. This study examines the performance of a Google Street-view based tool (Virtual-STEPS) for auditing microscale features of the built environment such as condition of sidewalks, traffic-calming features (e.g. stop signs), building setbacks, bus stops, bicycle lanes, and aesthetic qualities (e.g. graffiti), which have been found to be associated with physical activity in previous studies. The authors focused on these features because they are believed to be more readily amenable to intervention than macroscale features such as connectivity, land-use mix, and population density. Virtual-STEPS was found to be reliable in terms of inter-rater agreement and comparison to field auditing, and more time-efficient by eliminating travel time, based on evaluation of 60 street segments in Montreal, Canada. The tool may provide a cost-effective means of identifying microscale features of the built environment that are readily modifiable with the objective of promoting physical activity.

Health policies, systems and management in high-income countries

Cost-effectiveness of a statewide public health intervention to reduce cardiovascular disease risk

Chosen by: Summer Hawkins

As hospitals and accountable care organizations in the US are increasingly becoming more responsible for the health of their populations of patients, there is need to evaluate public health-clinical care delivery models that can prevent disease. Colorado Heart Healthy Solutions is a community health worker-based intervention that has previously been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease (CVD) among at-risk individuals. Smith and colleagues aimed to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the intervention in reducing CVD burden and projected events. The program involved community health workers supporting patients in predominantly rural communities by making medical referrals and providing individualized support to modify CVD risk factors. They found that Colorado Heart Healthy Solutions was a cost-effective method of reducing CVD risk and increasing quality adjusted life years. These results suggest that population-based public health programs have the potential to complement traditional medical services in preventing CVD.

Infectious disease epidemiology

Rising HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in Nigeria: a trend analysis

Chosen by: Giovanni Rezza

Little information is available on the epidemic dynamics of HIV infection among men who have sex with men (MSM) in west Africa. This study, conducted on a large sample of MSM recruited in several federal states in Nigeria, shows an increase of HIV prevalence from 14% in 2007 to 17% in 2010, and a further increase to 23% in 2014. Factors as older age, receptive anal sex, and history of sexually transmitted infections resulted associated with HIV infection. The results of the study are not only interesting from the research point of view but also important from the public health point of view, urging for more intensive and appropriate intervention.

Mental health

Child marriage and psychological well-being in Niger and Ethiopia

Chosen by: Noriko Cable

Many countries protect their children from entering adulthood prematurely and unprepared, yet some countries impose that children be married even before the age of 18, depriving them of having a crucial transition developmental phase for them to build psychosocial and material resources.  The effects of marrying young has been examined in the Western countries, but limited within the context of African countries. John, Edmeades and Murithi here have looked at adult married women as well as the head of their households in Niger (N=2,764) and Ethiopia (N=4,149) to examine the association between age of marriage and psychological well-being, indicated by the Psychological General Well-Being Index. Qualitative data were also collected from Ethiopian women.

In both countries, women were married earlier than 12 years of age, which was significantly negatively associated with their psychological well-being, reducing their psychological well-being by -7.41 points in Niger and -5.09 points in Ethiopia. Domestic violence also added to their poor psychological well-being, especially the aspects of self-control in both countries.  Qualitative results in Ethiopia revealed unrealistic demands placed upon women as a child bride and their powerlessness over marital arrangement and more importantly how they lacked opportunities to gain education and employment.

Children entering their adolescence are the most vulnerable mentally and physically, not ready for adulthood or responsibilities, especially marriage and family formation. This study adds that early marriage is detrimental to women’s psychological well-being, even though the custom of child marriage is socially accepted in these countries.

Occupational health

Psychosocial working conditions across working life may predict late-life physical function: a follow-up cohort study

Chosen by: Isabelle Niedhammer

In a context of increasing life expectancy and raising retirement age, this paper is offering us a highly topical subject. Exploring the associations between psychosocial work exposures, using a working life course approach, and late-life physical function appears indeed particularly pertinent and largely unexplored. The authors showed that exposure and particularly increasing exposure to high strain during working life were associated with limitation in late-life physical function. Although this study was not free from some biases (including residual confounding bias), it suggests that the psychosocial work environment and its exposures to work stress across working life may have an impact on health later in life. As these exposures are modifiable, this study, which is one of the first on this topic, opens the way to other research studies and potential interesting perspectives to improve the health among elderly people.

Social determinants of health

Holding the keys to health? A scoping study of the population health impacts of automated vehicles

Chosen by: David Rehkopf

This scoping review is a systematic survey of the literature on the potential impacts of Autonomous Vehicles (AV) on human health. The study encompasses a range of potential pathways that are rarely considered for social determinants of health, but a range that is necessary for understanding the ways in which AV use will have net positive or negative influences on health. For example, there are important potential pathways related to accessibility, environmental impacts, affordable housing, stress and land use. What is particularly noteworthy about this study is the explicit linking of a new technological development to the ways it may impacts social determinants of health and consequently health equity. It is forward looking in using the literature to help understand what might be done now to improve health as regulatory decisions are being made. The empirical evidence is far from clear, but the article lays out a path for evaluation, and one can imagine some useful approaches as individual U.S. states take different approaches to regulation. The article is also clear to suggest different ways in which AV use may be regulated. The technology is likely not fundamentally good or bad for health on its own, it is instead the specifics of development and regulation that are likely to determine the health impacts. Finally, more broadly, the study is an exemplar demonstrating the ways economic and technological decisions that are evolving rapidly can at any moment be more or less directed to changing myriad social determinants of health. The work demonstrates how public health researchers can play an important role in advising on the regulation and development of new technologies, using evidence on social determinants of health in order to improve health and health equity.