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Home > ARRA Stories > Gauging Loneliness and Longevity
Gauging Loneliness and Longevity

By Greg Borzo

Photo of John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo and Research Associate Louise Hawkley are co-principal investigators on two NIH ARRA grants to study how social factors affect the mental and physical health of people as they age and to present their new techniques to other researchers. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.)

How much of the aging process is due to a buildup of toxicities in daily life and how much is due to an inability to detoxify during fitful sleep, which many elderly people experience? Does social isolation or even the feeling of loneliness contribute to certain illnesses that are common among the elderly? Does the design of a city or neighborhood, say, the likelihood of encountering others or the presence of sidewalks and street lighting, impact the aging of the people who live there?

These are questions that practitioners of the new field of social neuroscience – the study of the neural, hormonal, cellular and genetic mechanisms underlying social processes and behavior – at the University of Chicago are seeking to answer with the help of two National Institutes of Health ARRA grants totaling $195,000.

"The social environment is fundamentally involved in sculpting and activating (or inhibiting) basic structures and processes in the human brain and human biology," says John Cacioppo, PhD, Principal Investigator; the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology; Director, Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience; Director, Arete Initiative of the Office of the Vice President for Research & National Laboratories.

The first grant ($120,000), which created two and one-half full-time positions, will go to recruit 200 new members to the Chicago Health Aging and Social Relations Study. CHASRS is a long-term study started in 2001 that tracks health factors and social characteristics of hundreds of people born between 1935 and 1952 as they age.

"By tracking people over a lifetime, we can see what factors contribute to their mental and physical health," Cacioppo says. "With this research, we are not only identifying new ways older adults can maintain good health, but also ways to lower the health care costs for the elderly."

"This is a unique study because we collect such a wealth of biological and behavioral data," he adds.

Once a year, the subjects go through 8 hours of extensive tests, including blood pressure, peripheral vascular resistance, heart rate and stroke volume, stress hormones, immune functions, neural systems, genetic factors, etc. The tests also include a battery of questionnaires about health status, as well as economic and social issues.

An unexpected benefit of CHASRS has been improved techniques for determining the causes of factors that occur during a study that stretches over many years, says Matthew Christian, Executive Administrator, Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. "We have developed better ways of determining whether something that occurs in year one, for example, causes something in year six or seven."

The second grant ($75,000) will fund a conference that will, in part, present these new techniques of understanding and modeling causes to other researchers. "We think our techniques will significantly change how researchers conduct all kinds of longitudinal studies," Christian says.

These awards are funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, NIH Award numbers: 3R01AG034052-02S1 and 3R01AG034052-02S2. For more information on NIH's Recovery Act projects visit http://recovery.nih.gov/.

This article originally appeared on the University of Chicago website. Reposted with permission.

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  • Aging
  • Behavioral and Social Science
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