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Pioneering study examines aging of Happy Days cohort

University Of Wisconsin-Madison : 15 January, 2000  (Technical Article)
They say money can't buy love, but could it change the structure of your brain? When the going gets tough, do the tough live longer? And if an apple a day keeps the doctor away, what can hard apple cider do?
For 45 years, the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study has provided policy makers and social science researchers with an unparalleled look at how education, career and family affect adult life. Housed in the Center for Demography of Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this groundbreaking study repeatedly surveys thousands of 1957 graduates from all of Wisconsin's high schools about their interests and experiences, habits and health.

Now, as those one-time high school seniors, known as the 'Happy Days' cohort after the popular television sitcom about Milwaukee's class of 1957, become senior citizens, a new survey will seek to understand more specifically how a person's entire life influences, and can improve, the aging process.

'The WLS is the only large-scale longitudinal study that has followed the lives of a large sample of Americans from adolescence to the brink of retirement,' explains Robert Hauser, UW-Madison Vilas Research Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Demography of Health and Aging. 'With the next round, we will build a baseline of social, psychological and biomedical data that will make the WLS a major resource for studies of human development and aging across the entire life course.'

The new survey, which will begin in 2003, is funded by $20 million in grants to UW-Madison's College of Letters and Sciences from the Office of Behavioral and Social Research of the National Institute on Aging. During the next few years, project staff will conduct more than 26,000 phone interviews and 15,000 mail surveys of study participants. More than 70 investigators, consultants and research assistants will work on the study; while most are at UW-Madison, Wisconsin alumni and researchers at five other universities are participating and will help analyze the new data.

The WLS itself 'is a lot like the people it surveys,' Hauser says. 'It's had its own changing life history.'

From its beginnings, the data now known as the WLS have been influential in Wisconsin and beyond. The study began at UW-Madison during the Cold War's scientific competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Working with state government, the UW's School of Education surveyed all high school graduates statewide in 1957 to learn their post-graduation plans. The conclusions drawn were the basis for the statewide expansion of Wisconsin's colleges and universities.

The study was revived a few years later when the late UW-Madison sociology professor William Sewell realized its potential value for studying how adolescent educational and economic opportunities are related to success in adult life. New surveys went out to a randomly selected one-third of the original participants, more than 10,000 people, in 1964, 1975 and 1992. In 1977 and 1994, researchers also surveyed participants' siblings.

The quality and depth of data collected by the WLS has made it one of the most influential surveys in American sociology during the past 30 years. Studies using the WLS have been cited more than 1,000 times in dozens of journals, and have influenced both academic study and governmental policy regarding the relationships among education, career and other factors that influence adult success.

The WLS researchers are hoping the upcoming phase will be at least as influential. 'We're hoping to see the study used to find out better ideas about successful aging, retirement and health policies that will improve the lives of older people,' Hauser says. Beyond the department of sociology, researchers from throughout the university, including the disciplines of medicine, nursing, engineering, law, social work, public affairs, psychology and economics, have plans for the new round of data.

Planned studies will examine how experiences during childhood and high school, and throughout adult life, influence health, cognitive functioning, economic and social well-being, and longevity.

'Longitudinal studies are like wine in that they get more valuable with age,' says Jeremy Freese, a UW-Madison professor of sociology who used the WLS in part of his doctoral dissertation at Indiana University. Freese says the new round of surveys would help his project and many others by asking new questions and repeating questions that were asked in previous waves. 'Because we will be able see how these people are changing over time, the new wave will encourage a lot of new research,' he says.

From that research, Hauser adds, 'We will gain a new understanding of how lifelong trajectories of family, work and other pursuits impact successful aging.'
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