Research on the determinants of healthy aging is an urgent priority as more people live into the 9th and 10th decades of life. Social relationships have been linked repeatedly with how people age both physically and cognitively, and the National Institute on Aging has identified as a priority the need to understand how social factors promote healthy aging. Unlike many capacities that decline with age, the ability to maximize positive emotional experience and thereby enhance wellbeing may actually improve with age. The proposed research will use a one-of-a-kind longitudinal study to examine social functioning throughout adulthood as a predictor of octogenarians'tendency to preferentially attend to and recall emotionally positive information (the positivity effect);and adult social functioning as a predictor of late-life cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being. In addition, we will examine the neural underpinnings of the positivity effect in this elderly sample. Currently in its 7th decade, the Study of Adult Development (Vaillant, 2002) is one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of adult life ever conducted. Participants from two ends of the social spectrum - Inner City school boys and Harvard College sophomores - were originally studied in 1939-1945. Over the following 68 years, study members have been assessed repeatedly with measures of social functioning, physical health, and psychological well-being. Now in their 80s, 256 men are still alive and participating in the Study. The proposed 4-year application will capitalize on this unique sample and database to address two specific aims.
Aim 1 is to examine whether early and mid-adult social functioning is predictive of (1) variation in the positivity effect among octogenarians, and (2) late life cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being.
Aim 2 is to examine whether the magnitude of the positivity effect in these octogenarians is reflected in brain structure and function as assessed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), structural MRI, and diffusion tensor imaging. In addition, Aim 2 will examine the extent to which the positivity bias is linked with concurrent physical health, cognitive functioning, and emotional wellbeing. The combination of nearly 7 decades of prospective longitudinal data with newly-gathered state-of-the-neuroimaging measures and thorough assessments of late- life cognition and health is unprecedented. The ultimate goal of this research is to identify antecedents and markers of healthy aging in late life that may inform the design of interventions to promote physical, cognitive, and emotional health among the nation's rapidly growing elderly population.

Public Health Relevance

The population of adults in the United States who live into their 80s and 90s continues to increase rapidly. Understanding how social factors influence the aging process will allow us to design better social programs to forestall decline and promote health in the 9th and 10th decades of life. Our proposed study aims to understand how social relationships and social connections during adulthood can affect brain functioning and promote cognitive, physical, and emotional wellbeing in late life.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZAG1-ZIJ-1 (M1))
Program Officer
King, Jonathan W
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Massachusetts General Hospital
United States
Zip Code
Nevarez, Michael D; Malone, Johanna C; Rentz, Dorene M et al. (2017) War and remembrance: Combat exposure in young adulthood and memory function sixty years later. Compr Psychiatry 72:97-105
Cahana-Amitay, Dalia; Spiro 3rd, Avron; Sayers, Jesse T et al. (2016) How older adults use cognition in sentence-final word recognition. Neuropsychol Dev Cogn B Aging Neuropsychol Cogn 23:418-44
Waldinger, Robert J; Schulz, Marc S (2016) The Long Reach of Nurturing Family Environments: Links With Midlife Emotion-Regulatory Styles and Late-Life Security in Intimate Relationships. Psychol Sci 27:1443-1450
Malone, Johanna C; Liu, Sabrina R; Vaillant, George E et al. (2016) Midlife Eriksonian psychosocial development: Setting the stage for late-life cognitive and emotional health. Dev Psychol 52:496-508
Waldinger, Robert J; Cohen, Shiri; Schulz, Marc S et al. (2015) Security of attachment to spouses in late life: Concurrent and prospective links with cognitive and emotional wellbeing. Clin Psychol Sci 3:516-529
Vaillant, George E; Okereke, Olivia I; Mukamal, Kenneth et al. (2014) Antecedents of intact cognition and dementia at age 90 years: a prospective study. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 29:1278-85
Jicha, Gregory A; Rentz, Dorene M (2013) Cognitive and brain reserve and the diagnosis and treatment of preclinical Alzheimer disease. Neurology 80:1180-1
Malone, Johanna C; Cohen, Shiri; Liu, Sabrina R et al. (2013) Adaptive midlife defense mechanisms and late-life health. Pers Individ Dif 55:85-89
Settersten Jr, Richard A; Day, Jack; Elder Jr, Glen H et al. (2012) Men's Appraisals of Their Military Experiences in World War II: A 40-Year Perspective. Res Hum Dev 9:248-271
Waldinger, Robert J; Kensinger, Elizabeth A; Schulz, Marc S (2011) Neural activity, neural connectivity, and the processing of emotionally valenced information in older adults: links with life satisfaction. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 11:426-36

Showing the most recent 10 out of 14 publications