Li awarded predoctoral research service grant

Women make the majority of the health decisions for their families, use more health services, and spend more on medications than men, yet the rate of obesity in women has more than doubled in recent decades. For women who are sexual abuse survivors, the rate is even higher, and one Penn State graduate student is aiming to find out why.

Jacinda Li, Ph.D. candidate in human development and family studies, was recently awarded the Predoctoral Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) to investigate the mechanisms of obesity risk in female childhood sexual abuse survivors and ways to target interventions.

According to Li, who is also National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Predoctoral and USDA Childhood Obesity Prevention Training Fellow, treating and preventing obesity in females is critical to halting the obesity epidemic. “For women, obesity is associated with increased risks for debilitating diseases, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and perpetuates obesity and its associated health risks in their children.”

Li will utilize data from the Female Growth and Development Study (FGDS) to identify mechanisms that contribute to obesity across the lifespan, examine modifiable health behaviors that can alleviate early life stress, and compare the roles these mechanisms and modifiers have on stress exposed females, such as those who are childhood sexual abuse survivors, to demographically-similar peers who were not exposed to sexual abuse.

Previous  research by the FGDS principal investigator Jennie Noll, director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, and her colleagues has shown that although sexually abused and non-abused comparison females did not initially differ in obesity rates during childhood and adolescence, abused females were significantly more likely to have obesity by early adulthood than were non-abused females.

“It’s an opportunity to investigate early stressors on obesity, which is often thought of the greatest cause of obesity in general, although the theory and has never been proven in humans,” said Li.

The FGDS recruited 173 female participants ages six to 16 from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and followed this sample across their lifespan. Over 80 of the participants were sexual abuse survivors. Noll, who is also one of  Li’s faculty sponsors, is the current director of the FGDS project.

Li’s project will examine the cortisol levels of the female participants in the study from to see if patterns of cortisol levels are related  to obesity and its complications later in life. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and elevated cortisol levels are associated with weight gain, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and the development of heart disease.

Along with cortisol levels, Li will also look at the effects of depression and disordered eating on obesity, as well as diabetes and metabolic syndrome rates in adulthood, making it the first study to look at all three obesity factors simultaneously.

Li plans to examine modifiable health behaviors such as diet, physical activity and sleep to determine how and when they should be implemented to reduce stress. “I will examine the mechanisms of obesity and their modifiers in hopes of contributing to the development of targeted interventions that can help all women to prevent and reverse the development of obesity,” Li said.

Other co-sponsors and mentors of the project include Lori Frances, associate professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Center for Family Research in Diverse Contexts; Elizabeth Susman, emeritus professor of biobehavioral health; Orfeu Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health; Nilam Ram, associate professor of human development and family studies and psychology; and Janet Welsh, research assistant professor of health and human development.