Penn State to study how stress affects health

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State researchers were recently awarded $5 million to study the link between stress and how it impacts health behaviors such as exercise and sleep.

The effects of stress on our health have been in the public and scientific spotlight for many years, yet the ability to measure common stress processes in daily life and identify how it affects our sleep and physical activity is underdeveloped. In this new study, Penn State researchers will identify components of stressful experiences and responses that occur and how they negatively affect these important health behaviors.

Methods of assessing and intervening on stress while it’s occurring are just beginning to emerge. David Almeida, project primary investigator and professor of human development and family studies at Penn State explained, “We’ll be able to assess how specific features of stressful experiences during the day alters sleep and activity patterns and use this information to develop intervention to mitigate the effects of stress.”

Researchers will also be able to pinpoint the specific elements that increase risk. According to project primary investigator Joshua Smyth, professor of biobehavioral health and medicine and associate director of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State, ‘stress targets’ can be used to develop and implement interventions that are specifically targeted to moments of risk. “We’ll be able to tailor them to the risk components experienced by individuals as they go about their daily lives.”

The project will be completed in two phases. In the first phase, researchers will focus on the components or aspects of stress people experience on a daily basis that interfere with their plans for being physically active and getting a good night's sleep. The second phase will devise ways to intervene on those aspects of stress to help people sleep better and be more active.

“What's really exciting is that we will leverage our collective expertise in the areas of stress, ambulatory methodologies, interventions, aging, and health behaviors to examine how the impact of stress on our health behaviors unfolds in real-time and in peoples’ natural environment,” said another primary investigator, Martin Sliwinski, professor of human development and family studies and director of the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State. “If we are successful, this research could revolutionize how we study the effects of stress and devise interventions to improve people's health.”

According to the research team, the project represents the signature strengths of Penn State and, in particular, the College of Health and Human Development. The multidisciplinary undertaking draws upon expertise from three departments (biobehavioral health, human development and family studies, and kinesiology), two research centers (The Center for Healthy Aging, The Methodology Center), the College of Medicine, and support from the Social Science Research Institute. The project also involves three co-investigators who were former College of Health and Human Development students and post-doctoral fellows who are now faculty at other institutions.

Other Penn State investigators include Stephanie Lanza, scientific director at The Methodology Center and professor of biobehavioral health; David Conroy, professor of kinesiology; Orfeu Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health; and Chris Sciamanna, internal medicine specialist, Penn State Hershey Internal Medicine.

The study is supported by the National Institutes of Health Science of Behavior Change Common Fund Program through an award administered by the National Institute of Aging.

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Last Updated October 22, 2015