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Psychosomatic Medicine

Monday, May 27, 2002

Release Date: May 23, 2002 SUPPORTIVE SPOUSE, FAMILY, FRIENDS CONTRIBUTE TO 'SUCCESSFUL AGING' Friends, family and positive experiences accumulate over a lifetime to help counteract the normal wear and tear of life, according to a new study in the May/June issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. Men and women who had good childhoods and good marriages scored considerably better on a measure of aging that includes a broad range of biological risk factors for disease and death. Individual components of the measure, known as allostatic load, include blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar metabolism and hormonal levels. Those components often do not significantly affect health outcomes, but assessing them together has been shown to predict risk for disease and death, says lead author Teresa E. Seeman, Ph.D., of the UCLA School of Medicine. "Wear and tear across multiple physiological systems is consistent with evidence that many people, particularly at later ages, suffer from multiple, co-occurring chronic conditions," she says. The study included a younger cohort of 106 men and women from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study who were most recently interviewed at age 58 to 59, as well as an older cohort of nearly 1,200 participants in the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging who were between ages 70 and 79. The researchers found that allostatic load was generally higher in the older group of men and women, consistent with the idea that allostatic load represents the normal wear and tear of aging. Men and women who had a lot of supportive friends were much more likely to score low for allostatic load than those with two or fewer close friends. Women, and to a lesser extent men, also seemed to benefit from good relationships with their parents and spouses. "Relationships likely affect a range of biological systems as cognitive and emotional qualities of social experiences are translated by the brain to downstream patterns of physiological activity," she says. There was also a limited effect in the opposite direction. Men and women who reported receiving more demands or criticism from spouses or children tended to have higher allostatic load scores, Seeman and colleagues say. They note that the scores for allostatic load may have been underestimated because the subsample chosen for the older cohort represented the healthiest third in their age range, possibly diminishing the association between this measure and social relationships. "The current findings highlight the fact that social environment effects on physiology are evident throughout the life course and may thereby represent a pathway for social environment effects on health and aging," she says. The study was supported with grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Mental Health.