UW-Madison leads $26 million study on aging

October 09, 2002

MADISON - While we all age, we age in different ways. But exactly why we age differently remains much of a mystery. A new study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, however, plans to make the reasons more clear.

With a $26 million, six-year grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the project will bring together 40 researchers from 16 institutions to understand a fundamental question in aging: What are the different pathways to health and illness?

The project, called MIDUS II - "Midlife in the U.S." - will follow the behavioral, sociological, psychological and biological well-being of more than 7,000 people between the ages of 35 and 85 years living throughout the United States. The project is one of the largest and most multidisciplinary studies ever funded by NIA, says Carol Ryff, psychology professor, director of the Institute on Aging at UW-Madison and the lead investigator.

"MIDUS II will be one of the first studies to link psychosocial and behavioral factors to changes in health, both mental and physical," she says. "Its breadth embraces the full complexity of the pathways that affect health and illness." And, unlike other studies in aging, this project will examine health effects in not only older adults, but also in people entering and leaving midlife.

Through a series of interviews, including a 100-page, self-administered questionnaire, researchers will gather information on each person's daily life. Questions will focus on personal background, such as marital status, ethnicity, education and income; social factors, such as support networks, family ties and social participation; psychological factors, such as personality, coping strategies and goal orientations; and health behaviors, such as substance abuse, physical activity and hormone therapy.

Similar data were collected on these individuals a decade earlier when Ryff, along with a national network of researchers from the MacArthur Foundation, participated in MIDUS I. Ryff says data collected from the two studies will enable researchers to track changes in the subjects' daily lives with changes in their health during the last 10 years.

Different from the earlier study, MIDUS II will also collect neurological and biological data in an effort to understand the interaction between psychosocial and biological factors on overall health. About one-fifth of all the participants will visit one of three research centers, including one at UW-Madison, so researchers can measure cognitive ability and a number of neurobiological markers that describe an individual's health and aging.

"These are exciting new areas of science that were not part of the first study," Ryff says.

In addition to this information, MIDUS II will also begin to identify genetic differences in how these biological, social and psychological factors influence health and well-being: Among the 7,000 participants will be some 900 pairs of twins, representing the largest U.S. sample of this group.

Combined with data collected from MIDUS I, the researchers can begin to understand the long-term role psychological well-being, for example, can play in healthy aging. "By studying all these different factors in a multidisciplinary way," says Ryff, "researchers may help unpack the processes and mechanisms that account not only for the development of diseases, but also for the maintenance of good health."

While the full array of data from MIDUS II will not be available for at least six years, Ryff expects that it will ultimately lead to more studies that investigate further the influence of biological, social and psychological factors on health. "In the last four years that MIDUS I data have been available, investigators from around the country have been publishing new findings in more than 30 different scientific journals, many representing premier forums for research in aging, medicine, health and the social sciences," says Ryff.

Furthermore, Ryff hopes that findings from this latest study will provide physicians and others on the frontline of healthcare with a richer understanding of the interacting factors that contribute to human health and aging.

"The data from this study will become a valuable, national resource," says Ryff. "I hope we can continue to collect this information at 10-year intervals for a long time, even if it lasts beyond my life and the lives of the other researchers."
- Emily Carlson 608-262-9772, emilycarlson@facstaff.wisc.edu

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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