Psychologist Cindy Bergeman Studies Aging and Resiliency

Author: Sara Burnett

Cindy Bergeman

In an early job as a social worker for senior citizens, Cindy Bergeman began to wonder: Why did some of the people she worked with have such a positive attitude while others seemed so dreary? When faced with adversity or stress, why did some weather the storm better than others?

Bergeman, now a professor in the Department of Psychology, has spent more than two decades pursuing the answers to those questions.

As a developmental psychologist, her research focuses on investigating patterns of variability and change in physical and psychological health across the lifespan and identifying the genetic and environmental factors that may influence that process.

Her major project is a decade-long investigation called the Notre Dame Study of Health and Well-Being, for which she recently received two grants totaling $3.3 million.

Taking the Long View

When complete, the study will provide some of the most detailed information to date about human beings’ ability to deal with stress and adversity throughout life, and the impact that has on physical and mental health.

“It’s a tremendous amount of data,” Bergeman says. “We’re bringing together a lot of very interesting threads of research into a single study that will allow us to get a snapshot of people and to follow their lives over time.”

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), which helped launch the study five years ago, has now awarded Bergeman $3.1 million, five-year grant to continue work on the project, while a new, $200,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation will fund related research looking at the role of spirituality and religion in dealing with stress.

The Notre Dame Study of Health and Well-Being started in 2006, looking at subjects age 60 to 75 from a five-county area of Northern Indiana. It had three components.

  • Each year, participants filled out a 50-page questionnaire that asked about a subject’s personality, stressors, social support, and physical and mental health.
  • In years one, three, and five, participants also filled out a daily diary for 56 days that asked questions about daily hassles or events, what type of good or bad things happened, and how the person dealt with them.
  • In years two and four, Bergeman and her colleagues interviewed a subsample of the participants and asked them to share their life stories, including turning points such as the loss of a spouse or child, and how they were affected by them.

Expanding the Scope

Bergeman determined early on, however, that the study would not be complete without research involving a middle-age cohort.

“It’s a lifetime of developing strategies that allow you to deal with adversity,” she says.

Bergeman sought and received additional funding from NIA in the second year of the study to add subjects age 40 to 59. With NIA’s latest grant, she will continue with the existing group of midlife and older participants and now add a cohort of younger people age 18 to 40.

When complete, the study will include 10 years of data on older participants, nine years on the midlife cohort, and five years on the younger subjects. In all, there will be almost 1,000 subjects.

Bergeman’s co-principal investigators on the NIA grant at Notre Dame are Matthew A. Fitzsimon Chair of Psychology Scott Maxwell, William K. Warren Foundation Professor of Psychology Scott Monroe; John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Psychology Gitta Lubke; Nancy O’Neill Collegiate Chair in Psychology Jessica Payne; and Assistant Professor Michelle Wirth. Former post-doctoral fellow Anthony Ong (Cornell University) and former colleague Steve Boker (University of Virginia) are consultants.

On the Templeton grant, Bergeman will work with graduate student and co-principal investigator Brenda Whitehead.

That grant will fund collection of health data—including reviewing medical records, performing physical exams, and collecting blood from some participants—in order to get a better sense of their physical health. The research team will then compare that information with data from the 10-year study to help understand the impact of religion and spirituality in participants’ lives.

“We are interested in the variability in the way people have experienced stress, and variability in religious/spiritual experiences and the extent to which those experiences can buffer health,” Bergeman says.

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