Program on Aging and Health
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Need for Program and Background
The United States is experiencing a longevity revolution. The number of persons in the U.S. aged 65 years or older reached 36.8 million in 2005, representing 12.4 % of the U. S. population. By the year 2030, this number will nearly double to about 71.5 million older persons: People 65 and older will represent 20% of the population. Thus, in a short period of time, the number of older persons will exceed the number of children in the U.S. In recent decades, the field of human development has responded to these changing circumstances by expanding its attention to later life.
Increases in longevity provide numerous opportunities for the productive engagement and participation of older adults in occupational, family, and civic realms. However, many older adults also face unique challenges in later life that can and do affect the quality of their health and well-being. Such challenges include attempts to preserve quality of life in the face of chronic disablements, such as arthritis pain, family and spousal caregiving, and cognitive impairments associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Not only is the human suffering that results from these problems of serious concern, but the increasing numbers of older Americans are creating a serious challenge for both informal networks of family and friends, as well as for large-scale health and social service systems. However, although normal aging is associated with significant declines in physical and mental abilities, as well as age-related motivational changes, those declines are not inevitable. Research has shown that such declines can be reduced and, in some cases, reversed with proper interventions.
The intersection between aging and health is thus a critically important area for basic and applied research. It also provides unique opportunities for the translation of research findings into programs and treatments for older persons. A number of the negative consequences associated with chronic physical and mental disease can be prevented through lifestyle choices, and the coping ability of individuals and their families can be enhanced through social- and individual-level interventions based on scientific evidence – that is, evidence-based practices.
The Aging and Health Program of the Department of Human Development explores age-related issues through integrated programs of basic research, applied research, and intervention. Further, the translation of research findings (through Cornell’s system of Cooperative Extension and outreach programs) promotes healthy aging through diffusion of evidence-based programs and practices.
Opportunities for Discoveries
As the descriptions of the faculty’s research interests below illustrate, Cornell University’s Program on Aging and Health is advancing knowledge about the social, emotional, cognitive, and neuropsychological aspects of healthy aging, as well as the prevention of disease and enhancement of quality of life. Cutting-edge work is being conducted on neuroimaging of emotion, preservation of memory, positivity and improvements in cardiovascular function, informal social networks and social isolation, caregiver support, language and communication in aging, resilience and psychological well-being, and other areas. The Translational Research Institute on Pain in Later Life (TRIPLL), one of 13 Edward R. Roybal centers for aging nationwide, and other Cornell research centers are key resources in promoting scientific discovery and translation of research into evidence-based practices that benefit society.
Opportunities for Students
The HD Aging and Health Program offers many opportunities for undergraduate and graduate study. Students can acquire a broad-based knowledge of the field of aging, including theoretical perspectives, empirical research, and methodological and statistical approaches to studying aging. Faculty research programs focus on both normal aging from cognitive and social perspectives, as well as specific problems that emerge in the aging process (such as memory loss, social isolation, chronic illness, and family caregiving).
The Aging and Health Program offers a complement to the early child development studies in the graduate field of Developmental Psychology, and the undergraduate program in Human Development. It attempts to extend methods and models used for understanding human development in the earlier phases of the life course to older persons. The theme of aging and health in HD is influenced by the life course perspective. Life course research considers both stability and change in lives as they unfold across time and generations, and in specific historical, cultural, and social contexts. Thus the Aging and Health Program in HD takes a life-long view of human development, recognizing that developmental growth continues through adulthood into old age.
A growing number of course offerings at the undergraduate and graduate levels involves students in this exciting field. Ties to geriatrics researchers at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and to faculty in other Cornell departments (including Psychology, Design and Environmental Analysis, Policy Analysis and Management, Development Sociology, and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, among others) add further depth to the program.
The study of aging and health is necessarily multi-disciplinary and involves examining not only changes in the functioning of the body but also changes in individual adjustment and behavior. The teaching program in aging and health includes a focus on:
- the aging process itself – that is, the biopsychosocial changes that take place from young adulthood through the end of life.
- the influence of social structural factors and social institutions – such as the family, communities, risk exposure, gender, SES, and workplaces – on the lives of adults across the life course.
In addition, the program emphasizes an evidence-based approach to policies and programs that promote or hinder successful aging.
On the undergraduate level, students can take advantage of The Gerontology Certificate Program. This program is an undergraduate concentration in gerontology in the College of Human Ecology. Students from any major at Cornell University who complete the 12 credits (six in health and human development and six in social and economic aspects of aging) receive a certificate. Students completing the requirements receive a certificate and their transcripts will carry a note of the achievement. Students can also note their area of concentration on their resume.
The courses offered and planned to be offered in the next two years are:
- HD 2180 Human Development: Adulthood and Aging
- HD 2510 Social Gerontology: Aging and the Life Course
- HD 3490 Positive Psychology
- HD 3570 Social Inequalities in Physical and Mental Health
- HD 4180 Aging:Contemporary Issues
- HD 4190 Midlife Development
- HD 4200 Risk and Rational Decision Making
- HD 4280 Research on Healthy Aging
- HD 4570 Health and Social Behavior
- HD 4580 The Science of Social Behavior
- HD 4590 Life Transitions Across the Life Span
Undergraduate Courses in Related Departments
- PAM 3360 The Evolving Family: Challenges to Family Policy
- PAM 3370 Race and Public Policy
- PAM 4460 Economics of Social Security
- PAM 4760 Economic Evaluations in Health Care
- SOC 4100 Health and Survival Inequalities
- DEA 1500 Introduction to Human-Environment Relations
- DEA 4720 Environments for Elders: Housing and Design for an Aging Population
- PSYCH 4310 Effects of Aging on Sensory and Perceptual Systems
- HD 6020 Research in Risk and Rational Decision Making
- HD 6510 Interdisciplinary Community-Based Scientific Research in Health Disparities
- HD 6520 Translational Research on Aging
- DEA 6610 Environments and Health
Graduate Level Research Design and Methods for Aging and Health
- HD 6860 Graduate Seminar in Research Methods
- PSYCH 6910 Research Methods in Psychology
- SOC 5080 Qualitative methods
- SOC 6090 Causal Inference
- ILRST 7170 Theory of Linear models
Charles Brainerd, the director the Memory and Neuroscience Laboratory, is Professor in the Department of Human Development. He is an experimental and developmental psychologist who studies basic memory processes throughout the life span and also studies the role of memory processes in the law. He is the co-developer, along with Valerie Reyna, of fuzzy-trace theory, a model of the relationship between memory and higher reasoning that has been widely applied in research on cognitive aging, cognitive neuroscience, early cognitive development, medical decision making, and the law. His current research on cognitive aging and neuroscience uses mathematical models of recall to pinpoint memory processes that are impaired versus spared in healthy aging, in Alzheimer’s disease, and in other neurological diseases.
Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, is an environmental and developmental psychologist interested in the role of risk and opportunity over the life course. Research on aging populations includes examination of the role of housing in older people’s physical and mental health and on how the accumulation of multiple risk factors throughout life can affect adjustment.
Corinna Loeckenhoff, the Lois and Mel Tukman Assistant Professor of Human Ecology, is a personality and social psychologist and the Director of the Laboratory for Healthy Aging. Her research focuses on age differences in personality, emotion regulation, and social cognition and explores their influence on health-related outcomes. A central goal is to understand how age groups differ in their approach to health-related choices and to explore ways to optimize such choices across the life span. Another line of research examines life-long trajectories in people's personality traits and their relation to health-related behaviors.
Barbara Lust, the director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL), is a developmental psychologist and psycholinguist whose major research and teaching focus involves the study of language and cognitive development in a cross-linguistic framework. Her research with the CLAL and international collaborators has involved numerous studies of the course of language acquisition in the normally developing child across numerous cultures, as well as studies of the cognitive effects of developing multilingualism in the young child. Her current projects include several which impinge on the 'aging and health' area, including: (i) Initial studies in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT of the language of Alzheimer's patients in early stages, in contrast to the language of normal aging and normal youth (20-29 years) and in contrast to normal first language acquisition in the child ; (ii) studies of second language acquisition across the life-span, with populations ranging from child to adolescent to adult and elderly. These are in collaboration with a Virtual Center for Language Acquisition in which several national labs are integrated in a study of developing multilingualism.
Anthony Ong His research centers on the social, emotional, and cognitive resources that people draw upon to adapt to stressful life circumstances as they age. Ongoing NIA-funded longitudinal and laboratory investigations are exploring the topic of resilience–why some individuals are able to maintain high levels of health and well-being even in the face of significant life challenges. Studies have elaborated how everyday life events (e.g.,, daily stress), normative life transitions (e.g., widowhood), non-normative life experiences (e.g., perceived racial discrimination), and chronic or enduring hardships (e.g., educational and economic disadvantage) are linked to various aspects of positive psychological functioning across the lifespan. The guiding question across these inquiries is, Who stays well in the face of difficult life circumstances or demanding transitions?
Karl Pillemer is a sociologist who focuses on family and social relationships and the ways in which they are affected by life course transitions, especially in the later years. With continuous funding from the National Institute on Aging over the past 20 years, he has conducted a series of related studies on factors that lead to positive parent-child relationships in later life, and on the mental and physical health consequences of these relationships. One line of research has involved the transition to becoming a family caregiver, focusing on the role of social network structure and function on the well-being of adult children assisting Alzheimer’s disease patients. A second research area examines within-family differences in parent – adult child relationships, using a large-scale study that interviewed older mothers and their offspring. Pillemer has been involved over the last several years in theoretical and empirical work exploring ambivalence (i.e., the simultaneous presence of positive and negative emotions) in parent-child relations. Finally, he maintains a program of intervention research in collaboration with colleagues in the Division of Geriatrics at the Weill Cornell Medical College, where he also has a faculty appointment. He is co-Principal Investigator of an NIA-funded Roybal Center for Translational Research on Aging, which sponsors rigorous intervention studies on topics such as chronic pain among older persons, elder abuse, and social isolation in later life.
Valerie Reyna is Director of the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making and Co-Director of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research. Her research focuses on memory, judgment, and decision making across the lifespan. Recent work concerns neurocognitive mechanisms of memory in normal aging, mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. In collaboration with colleagues at the Mayo Clinic, Reyna has identified memory functions that are preserved in aging that can be built upon to improve memory performance. In a second stream of research, Reyna is investigating rationality and risky decision making in a variety of populations, ranging from emergency room physicians to adolescents (e.g., examining mental representations, dual processes, risk and reward pathways, impulsivity, and emotion in HIV prevention). A third area of research concerns cancer prevention and medical decision making, especially the role of numeracy and risk communication in patient-centered decision making.
Elaine Wethington is a medical sociologist whose research interests are in the areas of stress, the protective mechanisms of social support and relationships, and translational research methods. Wethington has been the Co-Principal Investigator and Co-Director of the Cornell Edward R. Roybal Center and the Director of its Pilot Study Core since 2003. The Cornell Roybal Center aims to translate social and behavioral research findings into community intervention programs for older people in New York City. She has had overall responsibility for recruitment of pilot grantees and other researcher mentees, co-organizing monthly work-in-progress seminars, co-teaching a yearly course in community-based scientific research for the Weill Cornell Clinical and Translational Science masters program, and monitoring the progress of pilot studies, including taking leadership for protection of human participants in community-based studies. Wethington is a nationally-known expert in assessing stress in longitudinal surveys and is collaborating in an NIH study which is developing innovative computer-assisted ecological momentary assessment protocols for phones and a web-based retrospective interview based method to measure exposure to life events and chronic stressors. Her research on stress, the measurement of stressor exposure, and social support is also being applied in two new NIH-funded intervention studies.
Affiliated Faculty With Interests in Aging and Health
The program has a number of affiliated faculty whose research involves basic and applied research on aging and lifespan development, aging-related educational programs, and community outreach. Affiliates represent a number of different departments at Cornell University. Among these are Policy Analysis and Management, Development Sociology, Psychology, Sociology, Nutrition, and Design and Environmental Analysis. Faculty include:
Research interests: social welfare policy, empowerment, and family support among older persons; minority aging.
Richard Burkhauser, Policy Analysis and Management.
Research interests: how public policies affect the economic behavior and well-being of vulnerable populations, e.g., people with disabilities, older persons, low income households.
Carol Devine, Division of Nutritional Sciences.
Research interests: continuity and change in women's health and nutrition choices over the life course, obesity prevention.
Nina Glasgow, Development Sociology.
Research interests: sociology of aging, retirement migration, aging in rural environments.
Bruce Halpern, Psychology.
Research interests: effects of aging on chemosensory perception.
Douglas Heckathorn, Sociology.
Research Interests: respondent-driven sampling, aging artists.
Kosali Simon, Policy Analysis and Management.Research interests: the impact of social policies and the economic climate on availability of different types of health insurance, including studies of Medicare.
Jeffery Sobal, Division of Nutritional Sciences.Research Interests: marriage and body weight, food choice processes, food/nutrition systems.
William Trochim, Policy Analysis and Management.
Research interests: planning & evaluation, including studies of aging-related programs.
Nancy Wells, Design and Environmental Analysis.
Research interests: effects of housing quality on psychological well-being, the impact of nearby nature on cognitive functioning, and influence of neighborhood design on physical activity.
Weill Cornell Medical College
The Aging and Health Program in the Department of Human Development benefits greatly from strong ties to the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology at the Weill Cornell Medical College. Located in New York City, the Division provides many research and educational opportunities in a multi-cultural, urban environment. Drs. Mark Lachs and Ronald Adelman, Division Co-Chiefs, have extensive collaborative relationships with researchers on the Ithaca campus. A program on chronic pain and older persons, led by Dr. Cary Reid from the Division and Elaine Wethington, Anthony Ong, and Karl Pillemer on the Ithaca campus, has resulted in federal and foundation grants. A National Institute on Aging Edward R. Roybal Center is administered jointly between the two campuses, and provides extensive research training opportunities. A variety of venues for recruiting research subjects in New York City have been developed, including a network of 250 senior centers, and a large outpatient practice serving over 4000 individuals.
Research in aging at Cornell University is supported by several centers that bring together the expertise and resources needed to carry out the full spectrum of research on aging, from large-scale longitudinal studies to experimental laboratory investigations. These centers also offer opportunities for researchers and trainees to develop collaborative projects across a variety of disciplines. In the course of their training, students have ready access to these centers and their rich resources.
- Weill Cornell Center for Research on Aging and Clinical Care
The mission of the center is to improve the quality-of-life of older adults through an integration of Weill Cornell's aging programs in research, clinical care, and teaching. A fundamental principle of the center is the idea that multiple medical and social problems conspire can erode the independence of older people, and therefore only a team approach that marries scientists and clinicians from diverse fields can avert this erosion. Faculty affiliated with the Center are involved in clinical, research, and training activity related to aging and health.
- Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER)
CISER was founded in 1981 to provide research support services to social science researchers at Cornell University. Its programs are tailored to the needs of faculty, research staff, and graduate students from departments across campus. CISER provides a variety of resources for the study of older adults, including a state-of-the-art computing environment, support for the latest statistical software packages, and a variety of personalized consulting services. An extensive collection of data files in the social sciences, with emphasis on demography, economics and labor, political and social behavior, family life, and health, are made available to researchers. These data sets include a variety that allow for the study of adulthood and aging, including the National Nursing Home Survey, AHEAD, the Health and Retirement Survey, and many others.
- Cornell Survey Research Institute (SRI)
The SRI provides survey research, data collection, and analysis services to the Cornell community, and has conducted many studies of older adults. The SRI has a state-of-the-art facility located near the Cornell campus, SRI possesses extensive capabilities for telephone, mail and web survey data collection.
- Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) – The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) will build on and expand existing efforts by the College of Human Ecology and Cornell University to extend research-based knowledge into practice and policy settings. The center resulted from a merger of the Family Life Development Center and the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center and will seek partnerships with Cornell Cooperative Extension, Weill Clinical and Translational Science Center (in NYC), and multiple Ithaca-based departments, centers, and research initiatives. The aim is to make Cornell University a nationally-recognized leader in translational research by building on current cutting-edge research in which social scientists are collaborating with clinical researchers, community agencies, and policy experts on projects designed to bring research findings to bear on improving the health and well-being of individuals across the life span.
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