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Researcher hopes to pinpoint factors behind healthy aging

by Sherry Fisher - December 11, 2006

A strong marriage is one of the best predictors of mental and physical health, researchers say, but little is known about how early adult experiences affect intimate relationships in old age.

Nina Rovinelli Heller, associate professor of social work, is working on a study of adult development that she hopes will help identify the predictors of healthy aging.

"Relationships between spouses in late life can be extremely stressful. Aging couples often deal with illness and the loss of partners," she says

"The developmental dynamics that foster satisfying, stable marriages in older people are important to our understanding of positive adaptations to aging."

Heller is collaborating on a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health with principal investigators Dr. George Vaillant and Dr. Robert Waldinger, both from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School.

She has been appointed a research associate in the departments of psychiatry at the hospital and medical school.

The researchers are studying two groups of men, now in their 70s and 80s, who were in research studies more than 60 years ago and have continued to be studied.

One group consists of men born between 1925 and 1930, who were economically and socially disadvantaged and lived in the inner city, but were not in trouble with the law.

The men in the other group were sophomores at Harvard, selected from 1939 to 1942 for a study on adult development.

They were chosen for their physical and mental health and for high achievement potential.

These groups of men have been interviewed and had their mental and physical health assessed at regular intervals.

"It's a massive longitudinal study with a treasure trove of data," Heller says.

The researchers are assessing what they say are "two key components of marital functioning," emotional expression and security of attachment between husbands and wives.

Heller's part of the research involves attachment between spouses.

Couples are interviewed for about an hour: "Give five words to describe your partner; How has your relationship changed over the years? What would life be like without your partner?

"We're looking at quality and kinds of attachment," says Heller, who is developing coding strategies for the interviews of the men and their wives.

Heller says other studies have shown that people who are "insecurely" attached to their partners have less satisfaction and stability.

"They have more difficulty with conflict resolution," she says.

"Secure attachment to one's spouse and less negative emotional expression in marital discussions will be linked to better physical health."

Heller says the research offers an opportunity to consider the lives of men lives from two ends of the social spectrum.

"Because the study spans nearly seven decades of data gathering and analysis, there are opportunities to see the historical development of research strategies, instruments, and data analysis. It's also a rare opportunity to study couples married 50 years or more."

"The interviews provide a window on personal narratives, and a social history of long-term marriage in the last century - one that was full of social role transitions."

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