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“A critical, argumentative spouse can inflict major health damage on aging adults,” reports an article in Monday’s edition of USA Today about significant research conducted by Jamila Bookwala, assistant professor of psychology.

The article has been picked up or summarized by newspapers such as The Washington Post, The Denver Post, The Arizona Republic, The Seattle Times, and Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). The Daily Mail (London), The Sunday Times (Perth, Australia), The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, Australia), and The South African Star also reported on the research presentation. An article appeared on as well.

In addition, ABC News Radio distributed an interview with Bookwala to more than 3,000 affiliate stations Sunday. An interview with Bookwala also was part of the live radio program “A Touch of Grey,” which is broadcast on about 50 stations, including WOR in New York City.

Bookwala, who has involved many Lafayette students in her research on health and psychological issues relating to marital quality in older adults, shared her discoveries at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“Most marriage research has focused on couples younger than 50,” the article states. “But longer life spans and the boomer bulge headed toward 60 are sparking new interest in how marriage affects health in later years [according to Bookwala].”

She used a nationally representative database survey to study the link between health and marital quality in 729 adults ages 50 to 74, all of whom were in first marriages for an average of 38 years.

“Helpful, supportive spouses didn’t significantly improve adults’ health,” says the article of Bookwala’s research. “Especially in long marriages, ‘if your spouse is there for you all the time, you may come to take it for granted, to expect it, and after a while it doesn’t do much to enhance your health,’ Bookwala says. But older adults who said they had hostile, demanding spouses were in significantly worse shape for it. The more miserable the marriage, the more chronic and serious health problems they had – high blood pressure, arthritis – and the more painful physical symptoms and disability they reported.”

The ties to poor marriages remained after Bookwala screened the results for depression, which often accompanies illness. Other studies also convince her that “nasty treatment impairs health rather than other poor health creating irritated spouses.”

She received funding for her research on the links among marital quality, physical disability, and psychological well-being in adults middle-aged and older from the National Institute on Aging through the University of Wisconsin Institute on Aging and the Institute for Health, Health Care, and Aging Research at Rutgers University.

“Physical disability is an established precursor of poor mental health, and identifying the mechanism by which marital quality may shield against the negative impact of disability on psychological well-being is an important empirical question to answer,” says Bookwala.

Considerable research has been conducted in recent years on marital status as a factor in both physical and mental health during the mature years, she notes, but the role of the quality of the marital relationship in health during this life stage has received little attention. The vast majority of research on marital quality has been conducted on young newlyweds.

“A growing body of literature, however, suggests that marital quality may be an important contributor to psychological well-being during the mature adulthood years,” says Bookwala.

For example, in an article recently published in The Gerontologist, Bookwala and Jamie Jacobs ’03 (Margate City, N.J.) report on their comparative study of three different adult age groups, which found that marital happiness is more strongly related to depression levels among older individuals than their younger counterparts. Jacobs, who graduated from Lafayette with a degree in psychology, presented her research with Bookwala on the link between marital relationships and depression at an APA annual meeting.

Their findings indicate that although there are no age differences in negative marital processes such as poor conflict resolution strategies, physical confrontations, and perceived unfairness, older adults report being more happy in their marriages than younger adults. One of their most interesting findings is that negative marital processes are more strongly related to symptoms of depression in younger adults compared to their older counterparts.

“By contrast, in older adults, marital happiness (a positive marital process) plays a stronger role in emotional well being (related to fewer depressive symptoms) than it does in young adults’ emotional well being,” says Bookwala. Therefore, the research suggests that the link between marital processes and symptoms of depression may vary across the life span.

Under the supervision of Bookwala, in a separate independent study spanning two semesters, Jacobs examined the direct relationship between marital quality and physical health, as well as the indirect relationship between those two factors via mental health.

“Other studies indicate that a close marital relationship can be an important resource for the mental health of mature adults who are living or caring for a spouse who is physically or cognitively impaired, or is diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer,” says Bookwala.

Her new study’s findings will likely have significant clinical implications.

“To the extent that closer marital relationships moderate the deleterious effects of physical disability on psychological well-being, developing clinical interventions that strengthen or improve marital intimacy may be a practical step that clinicians and social workers could take to mitigate the poor psychological well-being of mature disabled adults,” she explains.

Indicators used to define marital quality for the subjects of her study are overall assessment of the marital relationship, marital communication, positive spousal support, level of disagreement, and negative spousal support. Indicators for psychological well-being are negative affect – amount of time that individuals felt nervous, restless, hopeless, that everything was an effort, worthless, and so sad that nothing could cheer them up; positive affect – amount of time that they felt cheerful, in good spirits, extremely happy, calm and peaceful, satisfied, and full of life; and symptoms of depression, e.g. losing interest in things, feeling worthless, etc.

Bookwala plans to use her findings as the basis for a larger project to be submitted for funding to the National Institute on Aging.

Last year, she received a grant from the Lindback Foundation to conduct research on the links among marital quality, depression, and ethnicity in older Americans. At the APA meeting, she informally shared findings from that work relating to the role of ethnicity in the marriage-health link. Also last year, she was among 15 scholars selected from a national pool of applicants to attend a prestigious Summer Research Training Institute funded by the National Institute on Aging at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn.

Bookwala regularly includes Lafayette students in her research. Marquis Scholar Joseph Benoit ’04 (Middletown, N.J.), who graduated cum laude in May with a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. with a music major, presented his EXCEL Scholars and advanced research with her on the marital quality and health of senior citizens April 23 at the Conference on Human Development hosted by George Mason University in Washington, D.C.

In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Melissa Mitchell ’03 (Merchantville, N.J.) worked as an EXCEL Scholar with Bookwala for two years before graduating summa cum laude with a double major in psychology and economics & business. They presented their research with neuroscience major Danielle Charych ’05 (East Setauket, N.Y.) on the relationship between pain and cognitive performance in older adults at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in San Diego, Calif., last November. At the prior year’s symposium, they reported on three studies in which they examined marital quality and health in late adulthood, the role of marriage in memory loss prevention, and the effects of childlessness on older adults.

“I loved working with Professor Bookwala,” says Mitchell, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa, Psi Chi (psychology), and Omicron Delta Epsilon (economics) academic honor societies. “She is so dedicated to her field of study, and her enthusiasm about our research was contagious. She kept me extremely motivated.”

Psychology major Joelle Sobin ’05 (Medfield, Mass.) co-authored a manuscript with Bookwala that was published in Psychology of Women Quarterly. The paper examines gender differences in serious marital conflict and its consequences, and surveys the reported experiences of physical aggression and subsequent injury in men and women within a marriage. In addition to the prevalence of aggression and injury according to gender, the study examines the prevalence according to age differences of young, middle, and older adults.

Inku Subedi ’05(Kathmandu, Nepal), a double major in psychology and anthropology & sociology, is conducting a comparative study with Bookwala on attitudes toward older adults in the United States and her home country. They distributed a questionnaire about aging to more than 100 Lafayette students and Subedi is gathering data at colleges in Nepal this summer as part of a yearlong honors research project.

A recipient of multiple grants from both the American Psychological Association and Pennsylvania State University, Bookwala has earned awards from the APA, National Institute on Aging, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Bombay. She has shared her research through more than 50 journal articles and conference presentations.

She served as consulting editor for the journal Psychology and Aging from 2001-2003 and has been an ad hoc reviewer since 1995 for Health Psychology, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Clinical Psychology, Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Psychology and Aging, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Research on Aging, Sex Roles, and The Gerontologist.

She has been an abstract reviewer for the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting program since 1997, and since 2003, for the Conference on Human Development Program and the annual meeting program of the American Psychological Association’s Adult Development and Aging division. She serves as a student poster award reviewer for the Adult Development and Aging division and is an external reviewer of grant proposals for the Atlanta Research and Education Foundation. She chaired a session on attitudes about aging at the 2002 annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

A member of the Lafayette faculty since 2001, Bookwala previously taught at Pennsylvania State University-Abington College, Drexel University, and University of Pittsburgh. Her research positions have included National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellow, Quality of Life Laboratory, Clinical Research Center, Geriatric Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, 1997-1998; project director, Advance Directives & End-of-Life Decision-Making in Older Adults, Kent State University psychology department, 1995-1996; and research assistant, Center for Social and Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh, 1993-1995.

Bookwala earned a Ph.D. and master’s degree in social psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1995 and 1993, respectively; a master’s degree in psychology from the City University of New York in 1989; and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Bombay in 1985.

She is a member of American Psychological Association, Eastern Psychological Association, Gerontological Society of America, and Health and Aging Interest Group.

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