Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Professor Maria Jansen dreams of having ten million euro to carry out a study into the poor state of health in South Limburg. She would focus on the hereditary nature of unhealthiness, passing from one generation to the next.
For decades, South Limburg has been dangling at the bottom of the health statistics. Chronic illnesses, psychological disorders, unhealthy sexual behaviour, child welfare, are all more prevalent here than elsewhere. All in all people from South Limburg live a year less than people from other parts of the Netherlands.
Maria Jansen, professor holding the endowed chair of Population Health sponsored by the Area Health Authority (GGD), has carried out a lot of research on this subject, but would now like to tackle it from a different angle. “We have mapped out the lagging development and made people aware of their unhealthy lifestyles, but it has brought about little change. Partly because the hereditary passing on of bad habits from parents to children has proven to be a persistent problem. If we can stop this, maybe we can break the trend.”
The fact that the home one grew up in has a huge influence on a person cannot be denied. “Someone who has grown up in a family characterised by poverty, unhealthy eating and a lot of smoking, runs a greater risk of suffering from chronic illnesses later in life. If this is aggravated by a father who likes to solve thing with his fists, if children have to constantly tiptoe around, they end up suffering from what we call ‘toxic stress’. Epigenetic research shows that this even affects the DNA, although the exact biological route is not quite clear yet.”
Jansen doesn't know exactly how, but she would like to make youths of around sixteen aware of the impact of their lifestyle on the next generations. How do they see the future? Do they think about relationships? Would they like to have children? What do they consider important in bringing up children? “You have to try and get to them and in some way continue to provide them with what they need in the future.”
She would like to follow the 16-year-olds, in particular from vulnerable families, for a period of eight years. “I would also urge them to accept preconception care. This is currently provided mainly if there is a genetic abnormality in the family, but in fact anyone can apply for it. Your health is mapped out and you are given information about pregnancy and everything related to that. It increases the chances of a good start in life, also because the first thousand days in a baby’s life are crucial to his or her later health.”
This research is related to the recent advice from the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, WRR), to focus policies more on the start of a life cycle, from birth (or preferably even before) until 18 years of age. In Jansen's study, parents would also be given pregnancy guidance, birth care and parenting guidance. “The Rotterdam region has already seen the rewards of this approach.”
She needs ten million euro to follow these youths for eight years. An application entitled Healthy Generation (Gezonde Generatie) has already been submitted to research funding organisation NWO, but chances of acceptance are slim. “A total of more than three hundred project proposals have been submitted, while no more than ten will be accepted.”