There is an urgent need to understand the processes by which economic hardship and family stressors in childhood reach across decades to erode midlife health. Research has been hampered by dependence on adults'retrospective reports about their childhood environments. Using a rare longitudinal database, the proposed study overcomes this problem by going back across decades to use eye-witness accounts of the childhoods of individuals who are now in midlife. This project will study the middle-aged children of the original participants in the Study of Adult Development (Vaillant, 2002) who started life at two ends of the social spectrum - inner city Boston boys and Harvard College sophomores - and were originally studied in 1939 to 1945. These men and their wives reported in detail on their family lives over the next 74 years. A second gap in understanding concerns the origin of middle-aged adults'negative attitudes about aging - attitudes which have been linked with morbidity and mortality in mid- and late life. This study will examine links between how one's own parents grow old and middle-aged children's attitudes about aging, health-maintenance, and health. It will also examine three maladaptive styles of emotion processing that are common among adults who grew up in dysfunctional families, are associated with negative health consequences, and may be important obstacles to healthy aging. This project is significant in that it will help clarify the relative utility of eye-witness and retrospective reports of childhoo economic and familial adversity in predicting midlife health (Aim 1), identify the contribution of parents'quality of aging to baby boomers'attitudes about aging and midlife health (Aim 2), and assess links between three specific maladaptive styles of emotion processing that are associated with childhood adversity and poorer health in midlife (Aim 3). The study will combine decades-old eye-witness accounts of baby boomers'childhood environments and parents'late-life self-care, morbidity and mortality with newly-collected data on baby boomers'emotion processing styles, attitudes about aging, and health-maintenance behaviors, along with assessments of these middle-aged adults'physical functioning and health. The approach is innovative in that (1) it uses rare prospectively-collected data from both parents and Study interviewers about childhood economic and familial adversity to understand midlife health, (2) by clarifying the contribution of parental models of aging to variation in baby boomers'approaches to aging and health, it has the potential to move the field of attitudes about aging beyond the current emphasis on cultural stereotypes, and (3) it focuses on highly specific difficulties with emotion processing that are the legacy of childhood adversity, that have been shown to be modifiable through targeted interventions, and that are associated with midlife health decline. The rationale for this research is that clarifying the specific processes that link family-of-origi experiences with midlife health is essential to designing more effective interventions to promote healthy aging.

Public Health Relevance

The proposed research is relevant to public health because it aims to clarify family-of- origin economic and socioemotional determinants of healthy aging and to identify factors that undermine midlife physical health and perpetuate the current epidemic of chronic preventable disease. In its focus on elucidating potentially modifiable obstacles to healthy aging, the project is relevant to the mission of the National Institute on Aging, which is o improve the health and well-being of older Americans through research.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Research Project (R01)
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Social Psychology, Personality and Interpersonal Processes Study Section (SPIP)
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Nielsen, Lisbeth
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Massachusetts General Hospital
United States
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