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)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZAG1-ZIJ-1 (M1))
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Gerald, Melissa S
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Massachusetts General Hospital
United States
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