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Rural Minnesota families sought for long-term study on health

A research study that will look at how genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors affect Minnesota families is underway. The goal is to have 10,000 Minnesota families enrolled in the multi-generational project, representing urban and rural communities.

People head to the Glacial Ridge Trail near Willmar in June 2020. Erica DIschino / West Central Tribune file photo
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WILLMAR, Minn. — Researchers with the University of Minnesota want to do a health check on rural Minnesota families as part of a long-term study that could provide valuable information for the individuals involved — and for the state as a whole.

The goal is to have 10,000 families involved with the study in the land of 10,000 lakes, said Andrea Hickle, study coordinator for the 10,000 Families Study .

A $25 gift card for everyone who completes the health assessment, and a chance to win a $250 gift card, is part of the incentive package.

But Hickle said it’s hoped that being involved in a study that could provide generations of families with health information based on genetics, lifestyle and environment will be incentive enough.


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Andrea Hickle Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

The cohort study, which will follow the participants over many years with periodic health checks, is intended to gather information from a wide demographic of urban and rural families.

Results of the individual health assessments could help participants live a healthy life, and the long-term study analysis could help shape guidelines on public policies to promote health and reduce illness for a broad population, according to the organizers.

Hickle said the study could have an immense impact on the health of families and entire communities by exploring data on why some people stay healthy and some contract certain diseases.

Following family members who share genes and habits can provide valuable information that could improve the overall health of those families and the state’s population now and into the future, Hickle said.

“We can’t overestimate the importance of having participants from west central Minnesota,” she said. “It’s a priority.”

Family health habits

The project, led by the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and Medical School, was initiated in 2017 by university researchers who were inspired to explore long-term health benefits to the state by conducting a long-term study on the health of Minnesota families.

Most studies follow only individuals. This project looks at the health factors unique to families.


For example, the study could provide insights about trends for cancer in families, said Jen Poynter, a University of Minnesota faculty researcher. Collecting genetic information is part of the study, with the option given to families on whether or not they want to be informed about the likelihood they may be at risk for certain types of cancer. The study could provide options for families to seek additional screening and treatment, said Poynter.

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Jen Poynter Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

According to information provided by researchers, the study may also reveal how gastrointestinal issues can affect a person’s health, may identify disparities in quality of health between different groups of people, show the impact of e-cigarettes and environmental changes on health and reveal how common diseases are transmitted from one generation to the next.

During the early rollout, some families were recruited at the Minnesota State Fair and Farmfest. Researchers spent time during the pandemic in 2020 fine-tuning aspects of the study and collecting data from the existing participants. The time also allowed researchers to implement new technology to collect samples and information remotely.

A couple hundred families, and many more individuals, are currently enrolled in the study and a plea is now being made to get more rural families signed up.

Researchers are “at the beginning” of building the list of 10,000 families and are eager to get the word out so that rural Minnesota is represented, Hickle said. “We have a long way to go.”

Researchers want to “mirror the demographics of the state” with urban and rural residents, said Clemen Wilcox, research engagement specialist.


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Clemen Wilcox Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Rural residents are exposed to different environmental factors than urban residents, and if rural residents aren’t enrolled in the study, they will miss out on potential health benefits in the future, she said.

How to enroll

The study requires that at least two members of a family be enrolled. The initial two members must be at least 18 years of age and currently live in Minnesota.

But family members are not restricted to just blood relatives and the study is also open to family members that live in the neighboring states of Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

“We welcome anyone,” Wilcox said. “The more, the merrier.”

What’s important, Wilcox said, is the ability to follow a number of members of a family to study genetics, environmental exposure and family habits — all of which could help paint an overall picture of health risks and benefits.

“When you can have that interplay of genetics and lifestyle and the shared habits and shared exposure, there’s a lot we can learn about transmission from one generation to another,” Hickle said.

Applying to be part of the study takes place online by going to to respond to an initial health questionnaire, which should take about an hour to complete.

A screener will determine eligibility. Once approved, each family member will participate in a health assessment, which could take about three hours, according to the study’s website.

Because of COVID-19, on-site health assessments are on hold and instead are being done remotely, which includes participants collecting things like saliva at home and sending it in for analysis.

Hickle said the virtual health assessments with existing rural Minnesota participants — including families from Granite Falls and Alexandria — have worked well and allow flexibility for rural individuals to participate.

When in-person assessments resume, most will be held in the Twin Cities. However, by this summer or early fall, it's expected that visits will be at University of Minnesota facilities in Willmar and Morris. Additional information, such as blood samples, will be collected during those health assessments.

About every two years, participants will be asked to provide an update on their health status.

Funding for the study has come from grants from the Masonic Cancer Center and the University of Minnesota. Hickle said it will take multiple sources of funding to maintain the study into the future as more families enroll.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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