Researchers recognized for innovative work in aging

The Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging has recently recognized three investigators in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State for their innovative research in aging. 

Nilam Ram, professor of human development and family studies and psychology; Lizbeth Benson, a doctoral student in human development and family studies; and their research team have received a Silver Award for Innovative Research on Aging for their work linking diverse emotions with chronic inflammation.

Lesley Ross, associate professor of human development and family studies, has received a Bronze Award for Innovative Research on Aging for her work on the effects of cognitive training on driving cessation. 

The Innovative Research on Aging Awards recognize excellent applied research that offers important implications for the senior living industry. Created to inspire next practices, the annual award recognizes groups and individuals committed to bringing research to real life to improve the senior living industry. 

Ram and Benson’s study looked at whether the range and variety of positive emotions play a role in inflammation in the body. Inflammation in the body increases with age and is related to numerous chronic diseases affecting older people such as diabetes and osteoporosis. Past research has shown that positive emotions may have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. 

“We have been working in a variety of research areas to tighten the interface between developmental theory and developmental methods,” Ram said. “This award highlights the value of collaborative interchange between theory-oriented and method-oriented researchers and how such interchanges propel our knowledge of aging forward.”

Ram’s and Benson’s findings indicate that having a range of positive emotions can help reduce inflammation. The study’s main finding was that people who reported a wide range of positive emotions on a day-to-day basis had less chronic systemic inflammation than people who reported a smaller range—even if their overall frequencies of positive emotions were similar. 

“This research suggests there are health benefits to living complex emotional lives,” Ram said. “Importantly, happiness isn’t the only emotion that can help someone stay healthy as they age. How excited, amused, proud, strong, and cheerful one feels on a regular basis matters, too.”

Benson said the ideas and empirical findings in the paper contribute valuable additions to the knowledge base regarding interconnections among psychological and physical aspects of health, and the importance of examining diversity in individuals’ daily life experiences and over the life span.

“I feel fortunate to have opportunities to continue working with and learning from my collaborators on this project. These experiences are invaluable for the development of my research program and identity as a scientist,” Benson said. 

Ross’s study on the effects of cognitive training on driving cessation studied individuals who were considered at-risk for driving cessation. 

Healthy, community-dwelling adults age 65 and older from six different United States sites were enrolled and randomized into one of three cognitive training interventions: 10 to 18 hours of training on processing speed, reasoning, or memory, as well as a no-contact control condition. 

Ross and colleagues found those who received the reasoning training were 49 percent less likely to cease driving within 10 years; those in the speed of processing training group were 55 percent less likely to quit driving within 10 years; and additional sessions for speed of processing training improved results further, resulting in a 70 percent reduction of driving cessation. Coauthors included Sara Freed, Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program Fellow in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), and Christine Phillips, a postdoctoral scholar in HDFS, at Penn State; and Jerri Edwards at the University of South Florida and Karlene Ball at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.          

“It's an honor to be recognized and a privilege to have this avenue for research dissemination,” Ross said.

Each year, Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging selects award recipients based on the quality of their research, the actionable research findings and recommendations, relevance to important problems in the senior living industry, and innovation. For more information visit matherlifewaysinstituteonaging.com. For more information about the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State, visit hhd.psu.edu/hdfs.