Why do certain families seem to live longer and healthier than others? Do some families pass on more mutations than others? How do environmental changes and exposures to new risks such as e-cigarettes affect health? These are some of the questions that University of Minnesota faculty are striving to answer through a new study that seeks to enroll 10,000 families in generational research.
Health, diseases, and risk factors can run in families. The goal of 10,000 Families is to understand how genetics, environmental exposures, and lifestyle habits contribute to health and disease.
Masonic support launched the study, and after three years 10,000 Families is moving out of the pilot phase and into communities statewide.
The new face of engagement
In 2019, 10,000 Families achieved a major milestone by hiring the study’s first-ever engagement specialist.
Clemen Wilcox, who comes to the U with extensive experience in communications and marketing, is in many ways becoming the face of 10,000 Families. Her focus—and passion—is finding ways to make the study more accessible to people from all types of communities in Minnesota.
“In my mind, I am the connection between the study and the community,” Wilcox says.
“I work really hard to not only engage communities that are traditionally included in research, but to reach newer ones that are non-caucasian or from rural areas, for example. I’m trying to mirror the composition of Minnesota’s communities with recruitment.”
Prior to Wilcox joining the team, efforts to enroll participants in 10,000 Families were centered primarily on the Minnesota State Fair. Today, Wilcox is reaching diverse communities through events and gatherings that have included everything from the Hmong Freedom Fest in St. Paul, to Latina women’s group meetings (Mujeres Latinas de Minnesota) in rotating locations, to the Many Faces of Community Health Conference in Brooklyn Park.
Building momentum, and Masonic connections, in rural communities
For 10,000 Families to be successful, a crucial step will be moving its reach beyond the Twin Cities and to communities in all parts of Minnesota, especially since, as Wilcox points out, 40% of Minnesota’s population resides in rural areas.
Study leaders have begun to visit with families in rural areas: recent examples of outreach include a booth at FarmFest in Morgan, Minnesota, and a 4H youth and family workshop in Anoka County. The goal is to continue reaching out to families in rural areas in collaboration with University Extension centers and other potential partners.
As the team navigates this new terrain, they are especially excited about the role that the Masons could play in bringing 10,000 Families to Greater Minnesota. They are in the early stages of building connections with Masonic lodges, including a prominent one in West Central Minnesota.
These efforts will not only benefit Masons throughout the state and their families, but will have an exponential impact on rural communities.
“The Minnesota Masons have a real handle on rural populations,” says Wilcox. “There are more than 600 rural members who in turn are very connected to their communities. This will be so helpful in building relationships with community leaders in those areas and spreading the word about 10,000 Families. It’s a great opportunity for us to do more outreach outside of the Twin Cities.”
Following families takes flight
Another recent milestone for 10,000 Families has been collecting follow-up data from the inaugural group of families who enrolled in the study.
In early 2020, the team launched its online follow-up health questionnaire seeking updates from adults and children who were the first to enroll in the study when it launched in 2017. The plan is to continue to seek updates from enrollees every two years and to do follow-up collections of biological samples every few years as well.
Andrea Hickle, 10,000 Families study coordinator, is enthusiastic about the level of response they’ve received to the follow-up questionnaire. “We’ve gotten a great response rate from our study participants,” she says. “So far, we’ve heard back from more than half of the initial participants, and we expect to hear more going forward.”
While it’s still too early to draw conclusions about the factors that play a role in health outcomes, Hickle says the team expects to learn a lot about chronic diseases such as diabetes or cancer, autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease and lupus, rare genetic diseases, and more.
They’re also interested in the potential of the study to shed light on diseases or conditions associated with aging. “In 15 years, we’ll have more people over the age of 65 than children,” explains Hickle. “Following people over time will play a significant role in addressing the challenges and opportunities that come with an aging population.”
The impact of Masonic support
Wilcox, Hickle, and the 10,000 Families team are deeply grateful for how Masonic support is making a difference in the success of the study.
In addition to launching the study, “it’s meant the opportunity to bring in someone who is experienced, passionate, and dedicated to outreach and engagement,” says Hickle.
“Masonic support was key for getting this off the ground and now we’re refining, improving, expanding, and continuing to partner with the Masons to build connections into new communities,” Hickle reflects.
“It’s been really exciting for us to see this level of interest. In the end, this will be really significant for the health of Minnesotans,” says Wilcox.
To learn more about the 10,000 Families Study, visit TenThousandFamilies.umn.edu.