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Notre Dame psychologist extends research on aging into midlife

Author: Arts and Letters


When we talk about aging, we often think strictly in terms of those who have, well, aged the most. And yet for Cindy Bergeman, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, doing so would be akin to describing a two-hour movie after missing the first 90 minutes.

“Many of the diseases of old age—e.g., heart disease, diabetes—may be due to combinations of stress experiences that in fact happened much earlier in the life course,” says Bergeman, who is studying 40- to 60-year-olds to learn more about how people approach the complex demands of midlife. “It is also the case that the protective mechanisms that we are interested in are also developed much earlier in life and are maintained and expanded as we age.”

Her “Notre Dame Study of Health and Well-Being,” to which she’s added the midlife component, initially focused on people in the 60 to 75 age group. Having received funding for preliminary data collection from the University’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, it is currently supported by two multiyear grants—totaling $1.8 million—from the National Institute on Aging.

The study tracks participants for five years, asking them to complete annual questionnaires that assess characteristics such as health, psychological well-being and perceptions of stress. In the first, third and fifth years, each participant also keeps a daily diary for 56 days.

Bergeman, a developmental psychologist and chair of Notre Dame’s Department of Psychology, says faculty in its “world-class” Quantitative Program provide the tools necessary to unearth trends indicated by the raw data collected through the questionnaires and diaries. This type of analysis is innovative in and of itself; combining it with insights gained from in-person interviews, which she and her student team periodically conduct with a subset of the participants, makes for a truly distinctive brand of research.

“Most studies use one or the other approach,” Bergeman says. “Few studies use both.”

Preliminary findings, which will soon be available on the Web at , suggest strategies to help people age better have to be tailored to specific circumstances and aren’t universal.

“Our work has shown that it is the fit between the attribute of the individual, such as personality, and the aspects of the environment—familial and community support factors—that may result in the most optimal health outcome,” Bergeman says.

She notes, however, that getting midlife participants is a challenge because, ironically enough, they’re too busy handling all those competing demands, the very dynamic she wants to explore.

“For all we know about the aging process, we still don’t know very much,” Bergeman says. “Is it the luck of the draw? The spin of the roulette wheel? Or is it something that we control?”

Anyone between the ages of 40 and 60 who is interested in participating in this study may contact Bergeman by e-mail at _for more information.

Originally published by Ted Fox at on July 31, 2008.