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Carol Ryff

UW-Madison psychology professor Carol Ryff is the lead investigator fof "Midlife in the United States," a study that debuted in 1995 and examines the interplay between social and psychological factors and physical health.

We've all read about polls showing people remain nervous about the direction of the economy as the unemployment rate stays stubbornly high.

UW-Madison psychology professor Carol Ryff is heading a project devised to uncover a much more in-depth understanding about how the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is affecting people's lives.

Ryff is the lead investigator for "Midlife in the United States," a study that debuted in 1995 and examines the interplay between social and psychological factors and physical health. The MIDUS project — which incorporates the expertise of dozens of psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and biologists from around the country — is about to launch its third round of data gathering thanks to a $21 million grant from the National Institute on Aging.

The first study, in 1995, surveyed 7,000 people ages 25 to 75 about a range of issues, including socioeconomic standing, personality, health behaviors and much more. If that age range doesn't seem like "midlife" to you, Ryff notes that "we know a lot about old age and a lot about child development and adolescent development, but midlife was this kind of open terrain. Research in health fields and the behavioral and social sciences just hadn't studied (this age range) that much."

MIDUS II was produced in 2004 by re-surveying about 75 percent of the original group. That research also incorporated 600 black residents of Milwaukee to add diversity to the study group. This second study also added a range of blood tests and brain-based assessments for some of the participants. The latest variation of the project will not only reconnect with previous participants but add another 2,600 people to the study — and examine closely the impact of the economic downturn.

"This isn't like a typical public opinion poll," says Ryff, who has been at UW-Madison for 26 years and been involved with these studies since their inception. She also was the lead investigator for MIDUS II. "This project gives us a way of going much deeper into people's lives with regard to their emotional experiences and their connection to other people. And for some, we'll be linking all of this psychological and social information to their stress hormones and to their cardiovascular risk factors. This study operates under the assumption that all of these different parts of people's lives and experiences are linked. And we're digging into how they are linked."

Ryff sat down recently with the Cap Times to speak about the MIDUS project. What follows is an edited transcript.

The Capital Times: I read that some 360 scholarly publications have noted the publicly available data in MIDUS. Why are so many researchers so interested in this project?

Carol Ryff: It's due to the richness and the diverseness of the content. What I mean by that is it had all the usual questions researchers ask about your family status and your education and your occupational status and your income. But then we ask a lot of questions about work and family life, and then all kinds of questions about psychological and social aspects of people's lives; so things like mental health, personal characteristics, sense of well being, emotional happiness kinds of things. Then there are a lot of self-reported questions about health status. It's just a data set that lots of people wanted to work with and publish studies from. It provided unique access to a national sample of Americans.

CT: How do you select who will participate in the study?

CR: The sample itself gets recruited randomly, through what's called random digit dialing.

CT: How do you convince people to participate? I see the first part of the survey is a 30-minute phone interview and then respondents are asked to complete not one, but two, 50-page questionnaires?

CR: Well, we give them a nominal fee ($25 for the phone interview, a $10 incentive to stay involved and another $25 for filling out the questionnaires). But beyond that, I think they find the questions interesting, especially when they get more into the psychological and social stuff. We also send out newsletters to those who have participated to keep them up to date on some of the findings that have come out of the research.

CT: After this initial survey process, then some are asked to participate in a "daily diary study" or undergo cognitive or blood tests to check for health issues, or even brain-based assessments?

CR: Yes. Up until MIDUS II it was essentially what is called a survey study. In 2004 and 2005 we added a lot of biology to the study. So we were able to bring some people into clinics around the country where we not only did assessments of their general health status but we got a lot of blood and urine and saliva samples which gave us a basis for measuring a lot of what we call bio-markers. So these can be things that are, for example, cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol or blood pressure levels. With another subset of participants, we follow up with additional phone interviews about daily stress. People are called every day for eight days and they just report on what's gone on in their life. So that gets us into the textured details of one's life and stress. Another project delves into more detail about cognitive abilities, memory and how quickly information can be processed. And another subset of people participated in a neuroscience project led by (UW-Madison's) Richie Davidson. So they went to his lab for different assessments of brain-based measures of emotional reactivity and recovery.

CT: The third version of this project will be similar to the last one?

CR: We hope to bring another 2,600 people into the study, plus we will also be launching a third round of data collection with those who took part in the first two studies. And this time, we really hope to dig into the question of how the economic recession is affecting the lives of Americans. This is a study that's perfectly positioned to look at that.

CT: How so?

CR: We will bring in a new group of adults who were the same age as those we studied for the first time in 1994 and 1995. So we have people of the same ages but from different what we call birth cohorts; people who were born in different periods of time. So we'll compare people who are the same age but from two different historical periods, 1994 and 1995, and the present. We asked questions related to their economic situations and financial strains and what's the nature of your relationship to your spouse or your children or significant others. How is your mental health? Are you depressed? Are you anxious? So we'll be able to actually look at how has American society changed for people over this 15-year period during which this major economic event has happened.

CT: What really stands out to you from the first two studies?

CR: Typically when people think of measuring psychological or social factors they think, "Oh, you must be measuring depression and anxiety or conflict at work or at home." A lot of what gets assessed in research is figuring out how people are hurting. But MIDUS was a study that measures all kinds of what you can think of as positive factors. Health research has a tendency to just go for the negative; go for the things that contribute to disease and illness and death over time. But we'd like to find out what psychological and social factors help people stay healthy and well even in the face of adversity. So when we look at peoples' lives during the recession, for sure we expect that we're going to see more richly detailed evidence of how the economic recession is really hurting some. But we are also certain we are going to see stories of resistance and hopefully we can learn more about how bad experiences sometimes bring out the best in people. If we assemble evidence and knowledge of what I've called protective factors that help people stay well in the face of adversity, those become new targets for health promotion and for prevention.