“I Want to Understand Humans in Their Entirety”
Whether diabetes or obesity: researching chronic diseases and their prevention is at the center of the work of Professor Wolfgang Ahrens. The epidemiologist is a professor at the University of Bremen and the deputy director of the Bremen Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology (BIPS). Both institutions are members of the U Bremen Research Alliance. Ahrens’s work comprises a broad research field with social responsibility that necessitates an understanding of transfer oriented to society.
Among other activities, the academic conducts studies on chronic diseases, one of the largest of which is the NAKO Health Study. In this study, men and women between the ages of 20 and 69 undergo scientific examinations and surveys over a period of at least 20 to 30 years. The abbreviation NAKO stands for “Nationale Kohorte” (“national cohorts”). The objective of the long-term study is to enable a better understanding of the genesis of widespread diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart attacks. “Humans are not machines. Instead, we function only in the cultural and social contexts,” says Ahrens. “At our 18 NAKO study centers in Germany, there is direct, personal exchange with citizens on a daily basis,” says the epidemiologist. At these centers, the study staff conducts surveys and carries out medical examinations and educational work. In cases of abnormalities, such as blood levels that deviate from the norm, the study participants receive a notification. If necessary, they are given a recommendation to visit a doctor for a closer examination. “Taking part in our study also serves your own personal preventive care,” says Ahrens.
Wolfgang Ahrens was interested from very early on in the interplay between biology and the social context in which humans live. While earning his degree in human biology, he dedicated himself to questions from the field of epidemiology, which deals with the spread as well as causes and consequences of health-related factors in society. “I clearly fell into a market niche,” says Ahrens, “because there were practically no epidemiologists in Germany in the 1980s.” Over time, he increasingly realized that, in this field, you have to communicate your findings relating to diseases and prevention to society. “It’s not only about researching the causes – you also have to find cures.” Ahrens takes the social responsibility that results from his work seriously: “I probably have a little do-gooder in me. I have always had the expectation that whatever I do is also relevant to society.” Sharing research findings with the public is an important part of that. To fulfill his prevention duties and spread his findings as far and wide as possible, Ahrens also publishes his research in general health magazines such as “Apotheken Umschau.”
The European IDEFICS study coordinated by Ahrens, as well as its subsequent study I.Family, were also dedicated to the effects of nutrition and lifestyle on overall health. These studies were conducted at the University of Bremen, BIPS, and more than 20 other locations in the European Union. Over a period of 11 years from 2006 to 2017, international researchers investigated the health, nutrition, physical fitness, environment, and social surroundings of more than 16,000 children and their families from various European countries. Ahrens, in his role as obesity prevention representative of the WHO collaborating centre located at BIPS, now shares the expertise developed as part of the study with the World Health Organization (WHO).
During the IDEFICS study, research was also conducted regarding the effect of educational measures on behavior prevention. The result was that neither this study nor the majority of other studies really made the desired impact. A reason to rethink: “A paradigm shift is currently taking place,” says Ahrens. The previous behavior prevention measures in the form of general educational campaigns in society need to be successively supplemented or even replaced by structural measures on a political level. A sugar tax aimed at reducing consumption of soft drinks and the expansion of bike paths for the promotion of physical activity are a couple of examples. These are important findings for which Ahrens also advocates in his role as coordinator of the European Policy Evaluation Network (PEN). He plans to research structural preventive measures and their impact on the health of the population. “It’s about finding out which policy measures make a difference,” Ahrens explains.