Major study returns to probe mid-life, recession-related harm

Nov. 9, 2011

by Chris Barncard

The deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression is a prime research opportunity for "Midlife in the United States," a long-running and expansive study of the interplay between social and psychological factors and physical health.

Led by a group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and incorporating dozens of psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and biologists around the country, MIDUS will return this fall for a third look at the lives of thousands of Americans ages 25 to 95. The new phase is supported by a $21 million grant from the National Institute on Aging.

"We're moving forward a study that will tell whole new stories about how the recession has lasting influences from early adulthood to old age," says Carol Ryff, UW-Madison psychology professor and the study's principal investigator. "Like what's gone before in MIDUS, we expect to see tales of hardship and of resilience."

Beginning in 1995, the first MIDUS study surveyed 7,000 people from ages 25 to 75 in remarkable depth on social relationships, education, income, personality, health behaviors and more. MIDUS II followed in 2004, re-surveying about 75 percent of the original group, incorporating 600 black Milwaukeeans to lend an uncommon diversity to the study group, and adding a battery of blood tests and brain-based assessments for groups of the participants.

"It's not a run-of-the-mill public opinion survey or poll. It's pretty intense," says Barry Radler, a researcher at UW-Madison's Institute on Aging, home base for MIDUS. "We collect thousands of variables per participant on an unprecedented variety of topics."

To date, more than 360 scholarly publications have tapped the publically available data to detail connections — good and bad — among people's life resources (education, income), their ties to family and friends, pressures at work, daily habits (smoking, drinking, exercise) and mental and physical health, including biological risk factors.

The new phase of research will add 2,600 people to the study, and take a deeper look at the impact of a staggering economy on their lives.

"MIDUS incorporated questions on employment, income, and health insurance from the beginning," Radler says. "But they were crafted during the 1990s, a period of remarkable economic growth. Asking the same questions of a new cohort of adults gives us a unique opportunity to look at the impact of economic recession on the lives of American adults."

The stress of job loss, depleted savings or homes at risk may erode — or be relieved by — the quality of MIDUS participants' family and social relationships and their emotional health and well-being.

Those are factors MIDUS researchers have already shown to be key guardians against heart disease, stroke, diabetes and a raft of other health problems associated with aging.

"That's what has made the study a gem for researchers in so many disciplines," Ryff says. "MIDUS goes after detailed information on work and family life as well as inner emotional experience and then shows that these things matter for physical and mental health by filling in the biological pathways."

Because the study doesn't select participants based on particular health problems, MIDUS data can reveal the combination of life challenges, circumstances and choices that lead to any number of maladies. Or the path that leads in the other direction.

"We see that there are things people can do — some related to health practices and behaviors, but others related to emotional well-being — which actually prevent illness," Ryff says. "MIDUS shows us there are things people can do to eliminate risk, to protect themselves against problem-causing behaviors."