This five-year plan for the Pathway to Independence Award will equip Dr. Stephanie Wilson with essential
knowledge and skills to help launch her career as an independent researcher in aging, social relationships, and
health. This qualified candidate seeks to dedicate her research program to understanding how partnerships
evolve into old age and, in turn, shape the biological cascade to healthy aging and disease. Inflammation is a
complex immune process central to many diseases of aging. The proposed training at The Ohio State
University's premiere Institute of Behavioral Medicine Research with the mentorship of renowned experts in
psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) will supplement the candidate's expertise in adult development and couples'
relationships with a foundation in PNI, particularly inflammation and immunosenescence, to better equip her to
investigate the disease processes that most commonly afflict aging couples.
Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of paths leading to early functional decline, diseases of aging
(cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome), and death. Inflammatory responses to stress also become
dysregulated as the immune system ages, and thus increase age-related vulnerability to decline. On the other
hand, emotion theories of aging have emphasized the emotion-regulation advantages gained with life lived.
Older adults' ability to avoid or reframe some stressors provides a way to circumvent the stress-related health
risks that age exacerbates. This proposal probes age differences in inflammatory responses to couple conflict
and partner emotional disclosure, a novel context important for older adults. These studies will also test an
unexamined mechanism of context-dependent age risks, autonomic synchrony (e.g., how closely partners'
heart rates sync).
The first aim—to examine the roles of partner age, conflict behavior and appraisals, and synchrony in
inflammatory response to conflict— will be addressed in the K99 phase using existing data. Consistent with
prior research, it is predicted that older adults will behave less negatively in conflict than younger partners, and
in turn, greater negativity will relate to stronger synchrony with the spouse. Autonomic synchrony will be linked
to elevated inflammatory responses, and the inflammatory effects of negative behavior and synchrony will be
stronger for older adults than younger adults. The second aim will examine the same processes in the context
of listening to partners' emotional disclosure. Unlike conflict, it is predicted that one partner's need to share
suffering will motivate the listening partner to remain engaged, regardless of age and physiological risk. Thus,
without active avoidance, listening to a partner disclose may exact particularly high inflammatory costs in older
adults. Novel data from a disclosure task will be collected in the K99 phase and analyzed in Years 2 and 3 to
inform a follow-up study in the R00 phase and an R01 submission in the fourth award year.