What to Wear?
The sun is just rising over the horizon as a harried single mom grabs her keys from the hall table and ushers her two children out the door and into the car. As she backs out of the driveway, she scrolls through her mental calendar, trying to remember all she has to do in a span of hours: Drop off the kids at school, drive across town for a business meeting, then head to a doctor’s appointment miles away, in the opposite direction. Her nerves are already frazzled, and she hasn’t even made it off the block. Though the specific circumstances may be different, similar daily juggles—too little time, too much to do—are the reality for millions of people, both women and men.
A study now under way at the University of Pittsburgh is designed to measure patterns of daily stress as a way to help enhance our arsenal of stress-relief tools. The study is evaluating a new, innovative device that measures people’s daily stress “on the fly.” Participants wear something like an oversized wristwatch—which comes in one of two colors, blue or black—throughout the day. But the device doesn’t tell time. Instead, it contains a small computer equipped with a variety of sensors to measure the psychosocial stress that buffets daily life.
The device, called an eWatch, might play havoc with wardrobe choices, but Pitt psychology professor Thomas Kamarck says that it’s important to measure stress well, because a number of studies in both animal and human populations have documented associations between chronic stress and increased risk for disease, with the evidence being most compelling for cardiovascular disease and infectious illnesses.
The eWatch platform, designed by study collaborators at Carnegie Mellon University, will monitor participants’ daily routines, with only minimal interference. The project is funded as part of the Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a program that seeks, in part, to better assess the environmental exposures that may interact with genetic susceptibility factors to increase health risk. Ultimately, says Kamarck—who also is director of the University’s Behavioral Medicine Research Group—the study may provide a better handle on the types of processes that increase susceptibility to lifestyle stress. Measures, such as those developed at Pitt, also may assist in gauging health risks.
The project involves a number of studies; in the eWatch study, participants will wear the device for five days, answering questions—Happy? Working hard?—prompted by the watch every 45 minutes. The questions are part of the study’s attempt to gauge the mood, emotion, social conflict, and levels of demand and control the wearer is experiencing, because these are potential predictors of stress outcomes, such as the early onset of conditions like hypertension and heart disease. Over four years, more than several hundred people will wear the eWatch to provide a closer, more accurate look at how factors such as parenting children, burning dinner, and running late may stress the body.
Kamarck, a boyish 51-year-old with dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses, has spent a good bit of his career examining how mental stress affects the body. He leads the study’s research team, which includes Pitt psychology professor Saul Shiffman, Pitt research associate Barbara Anderson, as well as computer and engineering experts from Carnegie Mellon University. The first year of the four-year project is being funded by a $426,000 grant from the NIH.
It’s no secret that stress can influence diet, sleep patterns, blood pressure, heart rhythms, and more. But different people react to stress in different ways, and even though there has been a lot of talk about the relationship between stress and physiological health, says Kamarck, it remains unchartered territory.
Since his college days, Kamarck has set his sights on figuring out the mysteries of the mind’s connection to the body. The eWatch study aims to capture information about stressful situations while they are happening, or as close to when they are happening as possible, as a way to gauge the mechanisms of psychosocial stress. Other studies have attempted to achieve similar goals, using pocket computers or personal digital assistants (PDAs). The eWatch represents a new approach, which Kamarck believes will be easier to use and less intrusive. PDA participants had to take out the pocket computer, open it, and use the stylus to answer questions at timed intervals. The eWatch automatically gathers information and also prompts the user for responses.
“Once we get the basic program down, we’re going to experiment with different modalities,” Kamarck says. That could include making the watches Bluetooth-compatible so that interviews could be conducted via cell phone, or the watch might be configured so that participants can respond by moving their wrists or hands.
Maybe someday the eWatch will even offer color-coordinated choices. After all, not being fashion-flawed is one less thing to stress over.
Breakthroughs in the Making
Like lightning, the ailment that curses a family strikes brother Vin, causing him to faint. Tests reveal that, like others in the family, he has Brugada syndrome, a condition that puts him at risk for irregular heart rhythms, which can cause sudden cardiac arrest and death. Now, research by Barry London, chief of cardiology in Pitt’s School of Medicine and director of the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute, offers new hope and broader insights. London conducted a 10-year study on Vin’s family and identified the gene and mutation associated with the rare condition. An article in November’s Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association suggests this discovery may shed light on more common forms of sudden death in heart-attack and heart-failure patients and could offer further therapeutic treatments for all types of potentially fatal heart rhythms.
Look to the Skies
Emily Elliott, Pitt professor of geology and planetary science, wants to stop the sky from falling—at least the rain and snow that are polluted with nitrogen oxides, the noxious byproduct of burning fossil fuels. Her three-year study recommends increased monitoring of stationary sources such as coal-burning power plants that can damage environments hundreds of miles away when the contaminants return to Earth in rain and snow as harmful nitrates. Vehicle emissions pollute, too, but mostly over shorter distances, as their nitrates fall closer to roadways and don’t travel as far. The answers are blowing in the wind—and sky—says Elliott. Stop the acid rain and that will stop soil acidification, forest decline, and water degradation.