Alexis Walker explores why women care for family members before they care for themselves.

Alexis Walker is a professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences
Alexis Walker is a professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences

Alexis Walker, a professor in OSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences, is looking at a conundrum: The typical middle-aged woman takes care of everybody in her household except one — herself. The consequences of this benevolent self-neglect can be dire: chronic disease, even death.

Even the healthiest lifestyle can’t always prevent disease. Still, millions of wives, mothers and grandmothers could better fend off, or at least slow down, the ravages of diabetes, heart disease and stroke if only they could find the time (or make the time) to exercise and eat right. Walker is digging into the social and psychological reasons they can’t (or don’t). If she can identify barriers, she can help craft interventions that break them down.

Walker’s area of expertise, family dynamics, is the third prong of a cross-disciplinary OSU investigation into lifestyle choices among women who have been diagnosed with “metabolic syndrome” — a dangerous complex of risk factors that has reached epidemic levels in the United States.

Afflicting fully one-quarter of middle-aged Americans, metabolic syndrome is the coexistence of high blood sugar, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, elevated blood pressure and extra fat at the waistline. After menopause, women’s risks go up. So middle age is the “last window of opportunity” to head off illness, Walker stresses.

Tackling the first prong of the metabolic syndrome study, motivational interviewing, is Rebecca Donatelle in Public Health. The second prong, diet and nutrition, is being handled by Melinda Manore in Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

“My role in the study,” says Walker, “is to pay attention to how women’s family lives and responsibilities limit their ability to make changes that would benefit their health.”

For women juggling jobs, kids, husbands and homes, going to the gym usually means dropping something else. And then there’s the eternal question, “What’s for dinner?” When the answer is, “spinach salad,” the groans can be heard in Missoula.

“Women feel they have to keep the machinery of their families running — the psychological machinery, the emotional machinery and the practical machinery,” Walker says. “This research is really about helping women to be self-caregivers.”

Alexis Walker’s Web page

Department of Human Development and Family Sciences

College of Health and Human Sciences

OSU Foundation

National Institute on Aging

Terra article on Melinda Manore

OSU Faculty to Speak at National Gerontology Conference in Dallas (OSU news release 11-1-06)

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