Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


professor Claudia Haase
Photo by Steve Drey

Research by assistant professor Claudia Haase has found keys to marital happiness.

Sleep is a stress-sensitive system, according to Adam,

Sleep is a stress-sensitive system, according to Adam, who uses special watches to measure sleep as it links to health.

Pathways to Health and Well-Being across the Life Span

Sleep expert Emma Adam (center) with Billy Choo and Jenni Heissel.

If you’re working on an important project, do you stay up late to finish, or do you go to sleep at your usual bedtime? If your spouse says something hurtful, do you explode or stay calm? Research on human development shows that how you live your life now can have enormous consequences for how you will fare decades later.

Human development researchers at SESP investigate development with the goal of promoting health, happiness and success across the life span. Recent research by Emma Adam, professor at SESP and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, and Claudia Haase, assistant professor at SESP, sheds light on the developmental pathways of individuals as they travel through the seasons of life. Adam and Haase are discovering how life experiences now, such as missed sleep or a marital spat, can predict outcomes like physical health decades later.

Lasting effects of adolescent storm and stress

Adam, an expert on the myriad effects of stress in children and adolescents, studies how stress experiences in adolescence shape emotional and physical health much later, in the adult years. “In all my work I’m interested in how everyday stressors impact stress biology in children and adolescents, in ways that matter for their long-term outcomes,” Adam says.

Using a large nationally representative sample, she and her students have found that a range of stressors in adolescence — including loneliness, the loss of a loved one, instability in personal relationships and conflict — predict increased depression and worse general health in the early 30s. On the flip side, aspects of positive well-being, such as optimism in adolescence, strongly predict good health behaviors and positive health outcomes in adulthood.

Adam’s research shows not only how damaging stress can be in the long run, but also the biological pathways by which stressors in adolescence “get under the skin” to influence adult emotional and physical health. She focuses on two key systems — the hypothalamicpituitary adrenal axis, as measured by the “stress hormone” cortisol, and adolescent sleep. Healthy cortisol levels follow a curved pattern every day, starting out high in the morning and decreasing until evening. Adolescents and adults under stress tend to have flattened cortisol slopes, which are in turn linked to negative health outcomes such as increased risk for heart disease. Individuals under acute stress also show a larger- than-normal spike in cortisol in the 30 minutes after waking. In research with adolescents, Adams found this spike predicted a doubling of risk for depression and anxiety disorders over the next few years.

Adequate sleep is also important for health, but getting good sleep is not always a choice. “One thing that sleep and cortisol share is a sensitivity to stress. People tend to think of sleep as a health behavior. But anyone who has had trouble sleeping knows it isn’t just about picking a time to fall asleep — it’s a stress-sensitive system. The problem is there are costs to not sleeping.”

Adam’s research shows that for children and adolescents, positive family factors such as shared meals, warm parenting and increased monitoring by parents promote greater sleep hours. Adam’s research also reveals some of the costs of short sleep — adolescents with shorter sleep show increased weight gain and more onsets of major depressive disorder over the subsequent five years. Racial and ethnic differences also show up in the two stress-sensitive systems Adam studies — she finds Black youth in particular get less sleep and have flatter daytime cortisol rhythms than non-Hispanic White youth. In a recent study of 124 Black and White youth followed longitudinally from age 12 through 32, Adam is testing her hypothesis that exposure to race-based stressors in adolescence and young adulthood may contribute to racial disparities in sleep and cortisol in young adulthood. She will also test whether disparities in sleep and cortisol may in turn help to explain racial/ethnic disparities in physical health outcomes. In this research project funded by the National Institutes of Health, Adam and her team helped to create the first data set for testing the impact of discrimination in adolescence on stress and health in early adulthood.

Overall, Adam’s work shows that experiences in adolescence connect to stress biology and health many years later in adulthood. Reducing adolescent stress or finding positive ways to buffer adolescents from the effects of stress could have a lasting positive impact on adult health, according to Adam.

When I’m 64: Unraveling mysteries of adult development

Why do some people become happier as they get older and stay in good health, whereas others become miserable and get sick? This is a mystery that Haase, an expert on emotion, motivation and well-being in adult development, seeks to unravel. Haase has particular interest in interpersonal relationships as a key aspect of human development. Whether people are happy or miserable in their relationships can have huge implications not only for their own but also for their partner’s and children’s well-being and health.

Haase worked with Robert Levenson of University of California-Berkeley, who has led a 20-year longitudinal study of 156 middle-aged and older couples since 1989. In recent research, Haase and her collaborators looked at how quickly spouses were able to recover emotionally from “hot button” moments during their conflicts. “Into each relationship, some negative emotion must fall,” says Haase. “However, the question is how quickly people recover from these negative emotions.”

Their study showed that the ability to calm down after conflict predicted positive changes in marital happiness more than a decade later, specifically for wives. This ability to calm down was linked to constructive communication behaviors such as suggesting compromises or solutions to a problem. Constructive communication in turn paved the way for positive changes in marital happiness. “In new research, we are also looking at links to wives’ and husbands’ symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Haase says.

Individuals differ enormously in their emotional reactions, but where do these individual differences come from? While childhood experiences and personality play an important role, another set of Haase’s studies shows that certain differences are also rooted in our DNA. It turns out that people who have two short alleles of a serotonin-related gene with the decidedly unromantic name of 5-HTTLPR are more sensitive to emotions. In one study, Haase and her collaborators found that people with two short alleles have more extreme reactions to the emotional climate of their marriage. They flourish with a lot of positive emotion, such as humor and affection, and suffer with a lot of negative emotion, such as anger and contempt. In contrast, those with other gene variants are much less sensitive to emotions. Haase compares people with the two short alleles to hothouse flowers. “When all the nourishment that they need is there, then they can be thriving. But if the emotional climate is negative, they can be very miserable.” Increasing evidence suggests that similar dynamics are at play when it comes to family climate.

Haase stresses that the interaction between genes and environment is what matters for developmental outcomes. Moreover, experiences can affect biological processes, as Haase is exploring in a new line of research about people who develop dementia as they age. Collaborating with researchers at UC Berkeley, she is examining cognitive and physical activities (such as reading books, playing games or dancing) earlier in life that may prevent or slow down harmful brain changes.

Haase is also launching research into well-being and health by studying people’s subjective experiences, physiological responses and facial expressions as they discuss a difficult relationship or watch someone in need of help. The goal is to see how emotion and can predict long-term developmental outcomes — including health, relationship satisfaction and depression risk.

“For me the big interest is what makes for a happy, healthy and fulfilled life, even under harsh circumstances,” Haase says.