August 2020

Kelley P. Gabriel, PhD This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.Professor, Epidemiology

Broad research focus?

My primary research focus is on physical activity and chronic disease epidemiology. My background is in clinical exercise physiology, which has provided a strong foundation in cardiovascular and musculoskeletal outcomes. However, I also like to approach projects with a life course perspective. I am very interested in mid-life, defined as ages 45-64 years, and how physical activity during mid-life relates to successful aging in later life. I am also interested in research opportunities to build the evidence-base to improve our understanding of the relationship between physical activity and brain health.

Why Public Health?

During my training in exercise physiology, I realized that there was a strong focus on either optimizing sport performance of healthy athletes or managing symptoms and subsequent disease risk in persons with a health condition for which exercise may be 'prescribed,' such as someone attending cardiac rehab after a heart attack. Exercise physiology is similar to many clinical disciplines in that it is very individualized, you work with someone to improve their personal fitness or help manage their health condition. I became interested in public health because of the population perspective where use of physical activity as a primary prevention strategy may have more impact. I learned about public health at the annual American College of Sports Medicine meeting, where I fortuitously met a physical activity epidemiologist from the University of Pittsburgh. She asked me what I was interested in, and when I told her, she said "that's what I do" and encouraged me to apply to the PhD program and study with her. That was the beginning of my career in epidemiology.

What brought you to the SOPH?

I've always admired the research portfolio and investigators at UAB and the School of Public Health. While at my previous institution, I had the opportunity to collaborate with many multi-center longitudinal cohort studies, and the CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study has always been at the top of my list. The investigators, staff, and participants are very collegial, welcoming, and collaborative. Also, compared to other U.S. cardiovascular cohort studies, CARDIA is quite unique. Study participants were recruited as young adults, 18-30 years old, and they have attended follow-up visits, now about 5 years apart, for over 30 years. The Year 35 follow-up visit was scheduled to begin June 2020 and will now likely take place in 2021. The ability to examine life-course changes in physical fitness and physical activity from young adulthood in a diverse and well-characterized cohort is a key feature that sets CARDIA apart from other sister cohorts.

An exciting ongoing project?

Speaking of CARDIA, I recently received an R01 that will add a fourth maximal graded exercise test (or GXT), third measure of accelerometry, and first measures of heart failure biomarkers to the Year 35 follow-up visit. Not many cardiovascular cohort studies include a GXT, so to add a fourth measure to characterize 35-year changes in fitness is really exciting. With the third accelerometry measure, we will be able to characterize 15-year changes in accelerometry across the midlife transition, which is also unique to CARDIA. Of course, with the on-going pandemic, we will need to think creatively about incorporating these measures — particularly the GXT — into the Year 35 follow-up exam, but I'm up for the challenge.

Your favorite (self-authored) manuscript?

With the CARDIA Activity Study, I was able to collect a second measure of accelerometry at the Year 30 follow-up visit. With these data, we compared accelerometer-based physical activity levels across a 10 year span of midlife, which had never been done before. With these simple descriptive analyses, we found that time spent in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk or purposeful walking) didn?t change that much. However, cohort participants were starting to replace light intensity physical activity (e.g., casual walking, housework) with sedentary time, which has important implications for general health and risk of subsequent disease and disability.

Pettee Gabriel K, Sidney S, Jacobs DR Jr, et al. Ten-Year Changes in Accelerometer-Based Physical Activity and Sedentary Time During Midlife: The CARDIA Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2018;187(10):2145-2150.

Best training program you've participated in?

The University of South Carolina has an 8-day course on physical activity and public health that I attended as a post-doctoral fellow. The organizers invited all of the big names in the field to give lectures and lead discussions. Attendees had the opportunity to network and mingle with them. It was also a great opportunity to meet peers in my discipline, since the other postdocs participating in the course were from all over the country, and my experience led to many research collaborations, including published papers.

If not academia, then ... ?

I think I would like to be a radiologist. No, a defense attorney.