Lauren Nicholas

Lauren NicholasThere are “good deaths” and “bad deaths,” and having a living will can make the difference between the two. So wrote Ellen Goodman, author and co-founder of The Conversation Project, an effort to encourage doctors and family members to have conversations about advance directives before it’s too late. Goodman, in an April 10 post on the Health Affairs Blog describing her sister’s painful decline after developing Alzheimer’s disease, cited work by ISR researcher Lauren Nicholas and colleagues showing the importance of advance directives in making health care decisions for patients with advanced dementia. With a living will in hand, family members were more likely to be able to avoid aggressive and unnecessary efforts to prolong life beyond what the patient would have wanted, the research showed. But, Goodman, cautioned, families must have those end-of-life conversations early, even before a diagnosis, or they probably won’t happen. “You see,” she wrote, “it’s always too soon until it’s too late. Say it now. And hope that it will be respected.”

Yvonne Terry-McElrath

Yvonne Terry-McElrathHigh school seniors today drink less alcohol and smoke less pot than their predecessors. One-third of high school seniors say they didn’t do either drug in the last year, compared to just 12 percent who reported abstaining in 1979. But drug use is still an issue. And for teens who both drank and smoked, and especially for those who did both at the same time, the risk of unsafe driving is higher, according to an April 28 article in ScienceDaily. The article featured the work of ISR researcher , who analyzed data from the Monitoring the Future study, which looks at teenagers’ use of drugs and alcohol. Some 21 percent of youth who participated in the study said they drank and smoked pot at the same time. And their safety records were worse than those of teens who just drank, or those who used both but not at the same time. “It’s well known that both drinking and other drug use are linked to risky driving,” said Terry-McElrath. “But this suggests that it’s not only the frequency of substance use that’s important. The patterns of drug use are also related to the risk of unsafe driving.”

Gwenith Fisher and Jessica Faul

Gwenith Fisher and Jessica FaulJobs that require thinking creatively, making decisions, and solving problems may produce better brain function after retirement, according to a study by ISR researchers Gwenith Fisher and Jessica Faul. The research, featured in a March 24 article in The Huffington Post, suggests that people who hold mentally challenging jobs will likely stay sharper both while working and after they retire. The researchers analyzed data on 4,182 participants in the Health and Retirement Study who were interviewed about eight times between 1992 and 2010, starting when they were between the ages of 51 and 61. “These results suggest that working in an occupation that requires a variety of mental processes may be beneficial to employees,” Faul said. The study controlled for education and income levels of participants, but did not establish whether people with higher mental functioning to begin with were the ones to hold demanding jobs. “What people do outside of work could also be a factor,” Fisher said. “Some people may be very active in hobbies and other activities that are mentally stimulating and demanding, while others are not.”

Colter Mitchell

Colter MitchellIt’s long been known that growing up in stressful environments is bad for kids. But the degree to which poverty and instability affect children is tempered by their specific genetic makeup, according to a study by ISR researcher Colter Mitchell. Mitchell and colleagues studied a group of 40 African-American nine-year-old boys, half from nurturing environments and half from harsh home environments, using telomeres as markers of stress, according to an April 9 article in The Newcastle Star. (Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes from deterioration and generally shorten with age, disease, or stress.) The study showed that environment affected all the boys—with good conditions leading to longer telomeres and bad causing them to shorten. But boys with heightened sensitivity in the serotonin and dopamine genetic pathways had both the shortest and the longest telomeres. “Our findings suggest that an individual’s genetic architecture moderates the magnitude of the response to external stimuli—but it is the environment that determines the direction,” Mitchell says.

Jon Miller

Jon MillerThe recent recession hurt the finances of most Americans. But as the economy slowly recovers, Generation Xers—those born between 1961 and 1981—appear to have been hurt the most. The average American household’s net worth in 2013 was 14 percent below the 2007 pre-recession peak, according to a March 23 article posted by NBC News, but for Gen Xers, the average net worth plunged 27 percent. The drop only increased the already growing gap between those who have and those who don’t, according to ISR researcher Jon Miller. “It probably increases the spread between the top and the bottom, just as we’ve seen in general,” he told NBC News. “The people who are getting hurt are getting hurt a lot.” The dynamic bodes ill not only for Gen Xers, but also for their children, since parents may be unable to put aside money for college—increasingly seen as a necessary prerequisite for success. “They’re going to be harder pressed to send their children to college, which comes to the issue of opportunity,” Miller said. “It is the lower middle groups that will struggle more with college expenses.”

Richard Nisbett

Richard NisbettA person’s IQ—or Intelligence Quotient—is just one indicator of what he or she can accomplish, and may change through life, according to a Feb. 19 CNN Health article. Factors like poverty and stress can affect how well people score on IQ tests, which measure reasoning and problem-solving abilities, the article said. Studies by ISR researcher Richard Nisbett have shown that the IQ scores of poor kids adopted into middle-class families often increase by 15 to 20 points; a score of 100 is the average. “Heritability is not as great as some people (believe),” Nisbett said. “Environmental factors are very potent.” Those with high IQs also may lack creativity and other strengths, Nisbett said. And when it comes to predicting the ability to succeed in college, he believes high school grades are a better indicator than IQ tests such as the SAT. “GPA is raw smarts times how hard you work times self-control times a lot of other things,” he said. “I see graduate students with extremely high IQs who can’t achieve much because they’re lacking in curiosity…They’re lacking the ability to get along with people.”

ISR Health and Retirement Study

Photo by ThinkstockA recent report featured in a Feb. 25 Forbes article adds new fodder to the debate about retirement’s impact on health. Some research has shown that impact to be negative. But according to a new report, using data from ISR’s Health and Retirement Study, retirement has a significant and beneficial effect on health. Michael Insler, an assistant professor of economics at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of the report, acknowledged that his conclusions go against the often accepted belief that people fall apart once they retire. Rather, he said, the increase in free time allows many individuals to devote more time and energy to healthy behaviors. Insler found a decrease in the percentage of people who smoke post retirement. He also discovered that 52% of respondents exercised strenuously for at least 30 minutes three or more times a week within two to four years of retiring, versus about 48 percent of respondents in the two to four years before they retired. “It’s less about your stress and satisfaction and more about the time you devote to your health upkeep,” Insler said.

Paula Fomby

Paula FombyPolicies and programs aimed at helping at-risk families generally focus on mothers and their children. But there’s growing acknowledgement of the important role fathers play in the lives and achievements of their kids, according to a Feb. 23 article in The Atlantic. Unfortunately, with 24 million American children being raised in homes without their biological fathers, according to the 2011 Census, fewer kids have regular contact with their dads. Such children are four times more likely to be poor, and they also often lack the stability of a single father figure; one study noted that after parents break up, children experience an average of more than 5.25 parental partnership transitions. ISR researcher Paula Fomby told The Atlantic that there hasn’t been much research yet on the impact of multiple parent figures on children. But the research there is suggests that parental figures without blood ties often do less for children. That could be because of obligations to support children fathered with other women, or because of uncertainties about their appropriate roles.

Jerald Bachman

Jerald BachmanHigh school seniors who hold jobs on the side spend most of their money on personal expenses, according to the annual Monitoring the Future study, which tracked 49,000 seniors from 1981 through 2011. Throughout the 30 years of the study, the majority of students spent at least half their pay on items like clothes, music, and eating out, according to a Feb. 8 story on Michigan Radio. But ISR researcher Jerald Bachman said kids today are spending less money on cars. “Kids are just more connected electronically,” Bachman said. “So they don’t have to travel around as much in cars. And their parents are a bit more likely to chauffeur them around than they were in earlier decades.” Over the life of the study, only about 17 percent of 12th-graders have used at least half their pay for college savings. Bachman did note one significant change in the responses: Fifty-nine percent of high school seniors worked in 2010, down from about 75 percent just nine years earlier. “I don’t think it’s primarily because teens have lost interest in jobs,” he said. “I think it’s primarily because jobs are just not available.”

Kira Birditt

Kira BirdittBaby boomer parents tend to believe that their relationships with their adult children are much closer than their own relationships with their parents were at the same age. But research is showing this usually isn’t the case. According to a Jan. 20 article in Psychology Today, parents in their 50s have a developmental stake in seeing relationships with their kids as close and nurturing. But their children are likely to report the same kinds of parental aggravations that the baby boomers once griped about with their own parents. The article cited recent work by ISR researcher Kira Birditt, who, along with colleagues, interviewed 158 Philadelphia families. The adult children most often complained about relationship tensions that arose from parents seeking too much control or contact in their lives. Parents, by contrast, tended to point to the individual failings of their kids, such as bad job and financial choices. Mothers, the study found, were most annoying to their children. “Children feel their mothers make more demands for closeness, and they are generally more intrusive than fathers,” the report noted.