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Scholarship and Creativity

Attitudes about aging contradict reality, study finds

When he was 20 in 1965, Pete Townshend wrote the line "I hope I die before I get old" in the song "My Generation."

But a new study suggests that Townshend may have fallen victim to a common and mistaken belief that the happiest days of people's lives occur when they're young. In fact, the study finds, both young and old think that younger people are happier than older adults— when in fact previous research has shown the opposite. Older people "mis-remember" how happy they were as youths, just as youths "mis-predict" how happy (or unhappy) they will be as they age.

The study, performed by Veterans Affairs (VA) Ann Arbor Healthcare System and U-M researchers, involved more than 540 adults who were either between the ages of 21 and 40, or over age 60. All were asked to rate or predict their own individual happiness at their current age, at age 30 and at age 70, and also to judge how happy most people are at those ages. The results are published in the June issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies, a major research journal in the field of positive psychology.

"Overall, people got it wrong, believing that most people become less happy as they age, when in fact this study and others have shown that people tend to become happier over time," says lead author Heather Lacey, a VA postdoctoral fellow and member of the U-M Medical School's Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine (CBDSM). The senior author of the new paper, Dr. Peter Ubel, CBDSM director, found that ill people often are surprisingly happy, sometimes just as happy as healthy people: "People get better at managing life's ups and downs, and the result is that as they age, they become happier, even though their objective circumstances, such as their health, decline."

Disconnected low-income women need more support

Low-income mothers who have difficulty making a successful transition from welfare to work need help from government agencies if they are to be reconnected to regular sources of financial support, a new study says.

Findings co-authored by U-M researchers showed that about 9 percent of women who received assistance shortly after implementation of federal welfare reform in 1996 became chronically disconnected, defined as being without income from work and welfare for at least 20 months of the 79-month study period, and not living with another earner at the time of at least three of the five study interviews.

"Prior to the 1996 welfare reform single mothers unable to find steady employment could rely on welfare benefits. The emergence of this group of mothers without both wages and cash welfare for many months at a time is a recent phenomenon," says co-author Sheldon Danziger, the H. J. Meyer Distinguished University Professor of Public Policy and co-director of the U-M National Poverty Center. The other authors are Kristin Seefeldt, research investigator at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and assistant director of the National Poverty Center, and Lesley Turner, a recent graduate of the Ford School, now a research analyst at the Lewin Group.

The researchers analyzed data from a 1997-2003 study of 493 single mothers ages 18 to 54 who were welfare recipients in February 1997 in a Michigan county. Researchers found that reforms to existing welfare policies are needed to better assist women who become disconnected from both work and welfare. The study appeared in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly.

Study explores decisions on vaccination risks and benefits

If the deadly bird flu reaches America, which would you choose: To get a risky experimental vaccine now, or forego that risk but face an even greater one of dying in the epidemic? What would you choose for your child? What if you were in charge of public health for your community?

In the June issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, a team from the U-M Medical School and the Veterans Administration Ann Arbor Healthcare System report the results of an online medical decision-making study involving nearly 2,400 people of all ages and backgrounds.

Study participants were first divided into four groups. One group represented people asked to imagine themselves as patients in two different medical scenarios, another asked to think about the problem as a doctor advising a patient, one as a parent deciding for a child, and the final group as a medical director of a hospital. Only 48 percent of individuals who imagined being the patient said they would choose the flu vaccine for themselves, but 57 percent of those imagining being parents would decide to vaccinate a child, 63 percent of respondents taking on a physician role would advise a patient to get it, and 73 percent of those acting as medical directors would vaccinate large numbers of patients.

Study results suggest doctors should not shy away from guiding patients' choices, as they provide a valuable perspective. The study's lead author is Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a research investigator with the Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine who worked with the center's director, Dr. Peter Ubel, professor of internal medicine at the Medical School. Other study authors are researchers Angela Fagerlin and Brianna Sarr. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

New sleep gene discovery wakes up scientists

Proteins that regulate sleep and biological timing in the body work much differently than previously thought, meaning drug makers must change their approach to making medicines for sleep disorders and depression and other timing-related illnesses.

Daniel Forger, assistant professor of math at U-M and his collaborators from the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute studied two proteins (one called CKIe and another called PERIOD) that help regulate timing in the body. Scientists looked at how those proteins function in cells. One of the proteins causes the other to degrade, and the body knows what time it is by how much or how little PERIOD protein is present at any one time in the body. Drug makers spend billions to develop drugs to help people with sleep and other disorders impacted by our biological clocks, or circadian rhythm. Drugs to restore a healthy circadian rhythm by manipulating the levels of PERIOD proteins currently are under development.

One sleep disorder drawing notice is called Familial Advanced Sleep Phase, caused by a gene mutation. Patients suffering from the disease routinely wake very early, say at 4 a.m. and must go to bed early, at say 7 p.m. said Forger. "The theory was that the mutation caused (more of the PERIOD protein) so you get a short day so you want to get up very early in the morning," he says. But, during testing they found the opposite is true: the mutation actually caused the PERIOD to degrade more quickly so that less is present in the body.

Researchers took cell cultures and observed that for those with the mutated gene, the protein only took a couple hours to degrade. For the normal gene, it took 8-10 hours. Researchers will begin testing ways to regulate the circadian rhythm in mice, a necessary step before new drugs can be developed. Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Sloan Foundation.

A paper on the topic, scheduled to appear in the July 11 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, already is available online at

Diabetes-related emotional distress higher for minorities

The emotional stress of dealing with diabetes tends to be more severe for Hispanics than African Americans, according to a new study that also shows psychological aspects too often are ignored for both groups.

"Treatment strategies, such as taking daily medications, pricking your finger to test your blood sugar levels, or injecting yourself with insulin can be very distressing for people, not to mention being confronted with your own mortality or at least as someone who has a chronic illness," says Michael Spencer, associate professor at the School of Social Work and lead author on the study. "The emotional response, especially for people who are deeply connected to their culture through food, can be quite difficult to deal with," he says.

Researchers examined diabetes-related emotional distress among 180 inner-city African American and Hispanic adults with Type 2 Diabetes between February 2002 and October 2003. Overall, Hispanic respondents had a mean score more than twice those reported by African Americans (36.75 compared to 15.59). Still, African Americans reported significant emotional distress when dealing with daily hassles and perceived seriousness of their diabetes. African Americans experienced less provider support and more health care dissatisfaction, though Hispanics did not report the same perception.

The researchers said policymakers and providers must continue to find solutions to problems that exacerbate diabetes-related stress among minorities. For example, information should be available in languages understood by immigrant and non-English speaking minorities. The research appears in the recent issue of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

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