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Sanford helping with study of thousands of mothers, children to see how environment affects kids' health

Dr. DenYelle Baete Kenyon with the Sanford Center for Health Outcomes & Prevention Research stands Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2016, outside the Sanford Research Center in far northeast Sioux Falls, S.D. Barry Amundson / Forum News Service1 / 2
Dr. DenYelle Baete Kenyon Submitted photo2 / 2

SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—A lot of factors can affect a child's health.

Poverty, access to health care, obesity and parent-child relationships can all play a big role in how a child develops, said scientist Dr. DenYelle Baete Kenyon of the Sanford Center for Health Outcomes & Prevention Research.

To discover more precise effects, the Sanford Research Center group will monitor about 4,400 children from the Sioux Falls and Rapid City areas in the next five years. Nationwide, the "Safe Passage Study" is monitoring about 45,000 more children from diverse racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

A similar study was done about seven years ago, and Kenyon said they are "super excited" that about 1,000 of those South Dakota children so far, along with their mothers, are joining in the new study.

"These kids are now 7 to 8 years old and it'll be interesting to see how they are doing," Kenyon said.

The new study will continue investigating how exposure to a range of environmental factors in early development — from conception to early childhood — influences the health of children and adolescents.

Kenyon said they are looking at a number of environmental factors, such as right after conception, if the mother drank or smoked during pregnancy, or what she ate.

Another newly developing and important environmental factor is how much sleep the children are getting.

"Scientists are realizing now how much this can really affect everyday functions of children," she said.

The study will look at other factors, too, such as pollutants, what children eat and the home, school and neighborhood environment.

Investigators will then see how these factors influence such things as upper and lower airway health and development, obesity, and brain and nervous system development.

By tracking these factors, Kenyon said they plan to turn the results into action by working on broader changes to improve children's health.

Kenyon said the National Institutes of Health, which provided about $4.5 million in grant funds to establish South Dakota-based sites for the project, likes the Sanford location because of its rural setting.

"A lot of research is done on the coasts, but we have great scientists right here," Kenyon said.

Besides Sanford, the other two major players in the study are Columbia University in New York City and the University of Maryland.

To assist with the project in South Dakota, Kenyon said they are hiring about 15 staff members to assist in the personal visits with all of the mothers and children and for other phases of the project.

In all, NIH distributed $157 million in grants as part of the seven-year initiative which they call Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes or ECHO.