What We Know


boys telling secrets

What has Behavioral Research Taught Us?

Major advances in understanding the role of human behavior in health, and the complex interactions among behavioral, social, economic, and biological determinants of health have been achieved in the past twenty-five years. 

  • Funding in behavioral research from agencies within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) contributed to a significant reduction in tobacco use and related diseases. In 2000, overall cancer death rates dropped for the first time in a century, driven largely by the dramatic reduction in male smoking from 47% in the 1960s to less than 23% in 2006. Without this research, 40 million Americans might still be smoking today with about 12 million premature deaths and billions of dollars in excess cost to health care.
  • Behavioral research has accelerated our understanding of mind/body interactions, such as the relationship of stress to heart disease, decreased immune system functioning, and premature aging. Behavioral research has revealed evidence of links between stress, social involvement, and cancer progression.
  • Research to study the initiation and maintenance of health behavior change has produced behavior change interventions for diet modification, physical activity, tobacco, and drug use.
  • Through basic and clinical research, our understanding of the bio-behavioral mechanisms and treatment of mental health and substance abuse has advanced dramatically. Effective and cost-effective behavioral and combined behavioral and pharmacological treatments are now available for treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, and the abuse of nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs.
  • Research on behavioral risk factors, education, and adherence has contributed to dramatic reductions in cardiovascular disease and improved management of chronic illness. Funded by NIH, the Diabetes Prevention Program demonstrated that lifestyle interventions—modest weight loss and regular physical activity—can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in high-risk adults by 58%, compared to a 31% reduction with diabetes medication.
  • Studies supported by numerous NIH Institutes have demonstrated associations between psychosocial risk factors such as hostility, depression, and social isolation, and physical health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, and cancer.
  • In the United States, research supported by agencies within NIH (NICHD, NIAID, OAR, NIMH, FIC), and others has made major contributions to slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS and treating those with the disease. Although still devastating, HIV/AIDS is no longer the epidemic it once was in the United States thanks to research breakthroughs in decisionmaking, drug abuse, and sexual behavior.
  • Research at NIA, NIMH, and other NIH Institutes has led to dramatic advances in knowledge of the psychosocial determinants of premature aging and effective interventions to slow degeneration and improve cognitive fitness and memory as we age.