Erasmus MC scientists are conducting extensive research into the health of residents of Rotterdam, with the ultimate objective of achieving a healthy population, both of the city and in a broader context. By carrying out long-term cohort studies such as ERGO and Generation R , the scientists are studying the health of both old (ERGO) and young (Generation R) people. They also use data from the Obesity Clinic (Centrum Gezond Gewicht) and Ready for a child (Klaar voor een kind). By virtue of these efforts, Erasmus MC has secured a position as a world leader in public-health research. Professor of Public Health Lex Burdorf is one of the many scientists working with Erasmus MC. Lex conducts research into the impact of socio-economic factors, environment, air quality and behaviour on health and life expectancy.


Lex Burdorf: ‘On average, Dutch men reach the age of 80, and women 84. I once calculated that, on average, we in Rotterdam die one and a half years earlier than that. We have mapped out the average life expectancy along the Rotterdam Metro [underground] network. It turned out that the people living near the Nesselande end station live almost eight years longer than the people who live near the Maashaven station. Eight years, within the same city! That difference is just as big as, or even slightly bigger than, the gap between people who have only finished primary education and the ones with a university education.’


About Rotterdam as a location for medical research: ‘The city is used intensively as a laboratory. Individual researchers working in the city also work in academic centres with the municipality on urban health issues. The thing that is especially unique about Rotterdam is that we are conducting a number of large-scale, long-term population studies, called cohort studies, in which a group of people are monitored for a number of years. Generation R maps out the effects of lifestyle, environment and socio-economic factors on the development of children, right from the mother's pregnancy. In another study called ERGO, we’ve been monitoring a group of 15,000 people over 40 from the Ommoord district for nearly 30 years, among other things to pinpoint the development of dementia. These studies are yielding a multitude of scientific publications. I myself am associated with the CEPHIR academic centre, in which we study the complete human life cycle from the cradle to the grave, in collaboration with the municipal health service and others. From the international perspective it is very interesting to see the impact of these types of study, particularly thanks to the quantitative data that they yield.’


’Unfortunately, such knowledge is not always translated into practice; neither does it always result in immediate strategic measures. For example, we know that smoking is very bad for people's health. Nevertheless, many women in Rotterdam are still smoking during pregnancy. Various programs are in place to develop better interventions, such as A vigorous start (Stevige Start) and Ready for a child (Klaar voor een Kind). There is still much to be gained. As a scientist, I like to work with other parties to find solutions. For instance, when the “environmental zone” [which prohibits certain older vehicles in order to reduce air pollution, ed.] was being developed, I was asked by the municipal health service to think about health arguments to underpin the programme. In such cases, I provide relevant information to the responsible aldermen. And this is how we are all working together on a healthier future, each of us from their own role and expertise.’


‘And as far as I’m concerned, this is what we need in our ambition to achieve a healthier life in a healthy city; good collaboration between people, organisations and disciplines, such as between policy makers, care providers, scientists and teachers. A strict non-smoking policy is a concrete example of something where this collaboration could be fruitful. Everybody knows that smoking is very bad for our health, but nevertheless many people still smoke. In this context, we - all of us - have a responsibility. Teachers can assist in raising awareness, just like doctors, who are obviously also committed to this subject through their research and providing care. Policy makers might be involved in creating more non-smoking areas in busy public spaces. Another example is making sure that children get a good start to their day. If you realise that many children are sent off to school without breakfast, or perhaps with just a few energy bars, then you understand that there is still progress to be made here.
‘There are a lot more issues I could mention. Fortunately, we’re reaching out to one another in Rotterdam more often, and more effectively. And Rotterdam is a city that is known for its open mind to unorthodox, “out-of-the-box” solutions. As far as I’m concerned, together we are going to ensure that the slogan 'Rotterdam. Make It Happen' also applies to healthy living in a healthy city!’
You can read the complete interview with Lex Burdorf (in Dutch) here. Header photo: (c) Erasmus MC / Alain Gil-Gonzalez
My selection