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By Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online.

By Christine McConville

Globe Staff

As director of UMass-Lowell's Center for Health and Disease Research, Robert Nicolosi knows the toll that obesity takes on adults and children, whose severe weight problems leave them susceptible to diabetes, heart disease, and other serious illnesses.

Now Nicolosi is working to apply that knowledge and concern on the local level. As chairman of the Tyngsborough Board of Health, he believes the role of local health boards should extend beyond the nuts and bolts of local regulation to consider changing the patterns that affect people's lives.

"I wanted to get away from the trash permits, and into children's nutrition," he said last week. "Boards of health should focus on issues that affect young children, such as diabetes and obesity, and on senior citizens' health."

Nicolosi, who holds a doctorate in zoology and biochemistry, is also trying to persuade people in Lowell to adopt some lifestyle changes to address problems of obesity in the city. The center he runs from a cluttered third-floor office at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's Weed Hall is joining with schools, hospitals, and senior centers to push prevention and early diabetes detection.

In Tyngsborough, Nicolosi has convinced other residents that the health board must change its focus.

"Many people are forward thinkers," said one of Nicolosi's supporters, Tyngsborough Selectman Richard LeMoine."But Bob is an extremely forward thinker."

Nicolosi has successfully pushed for changes in the town's health department to make it better able to meet its new focus.

In June, at Nicolosi's suggestion, Town Meeting agreed to expand the health board from three to five members. LeMoine said the town will hold a special election in November to elect the new members. The members are all volunteers, but they are paid an annual stipend of approximately $1,000, LeMoine said.

Nicolosi has also persuaded the town to waive its hiring freeze and hire a professionally trained health director.

"In Tyngsborough," LeMoine said, "our health department has always been septic-related, trash and recycling focused, but we need the health services to relate to community health.

"We need a person who has [a background as] a public health professional, with an emphasis on community health," he said.

Town officials are putting together a position description now. They are hoping that Nicolosi will help on that end, too. As a research scientist, he has a lot of experience writing grants. In this town, as in others, cash is tight. LeMoine hopes to secure a grant to cover the new health director's salary, not yet determined.

"What Bob brings here can't be underestimated. . . . This is a tremendous opportunity for the town," LeMoine said.

According to UMass data, 10 million Americans are being treated for diabetes, and another 10 million either have undiagnosed diabetes or are at a very high risk of developing the disease.

Those numbers are expected to increase. UMass reports that 60 percent of American adults and 30 percent of school-age children are overweight or obese, and at risk of developing diabetes.