Human Health Labs

Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank
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Aging Lab
Dave Burbank

The Aging Lab focuses on issues of adult development and aging. Researchers look at three aspects of human well-being and flourishing: life satisfaction, feelings of happiness and sadness, and a sense of purpose and personal growth. A major research area concentrates on life adversity and how it influences well-being and health at older ages.

The lab recently published a review in 2017, in Gerontology, that reports on research examining various forms of enduring and fragile positive affect in relation to health among older adults.

“Several projects in the aging lab cross over with other lab interests, such as emotion and relationships,” says Anthony Ong. “We are most interested in understanding how emotional resilience affects the health of aging adults.”

Emotion Lab
Dave Burbank

Research in the Emotion Lab is concerned with understanding the nature and function of human emotion. The lab is most interested in the benefits that positive emotions have on disease and health.

In a recent project done in collaboration with researchers at Arizona State University and Penn State University, the lab sought to answer the question, “Do people who have diverse emotional experiences have better health?” The study was conducted by collecting diary data from 175 adults ranging from 40 to 65 years of age. Participants provided daily reports of their positive and negative emotions over 30 days. Their blood was also analyzed for three laboratory markers of inflammation: IL-6, CRP, and fibrinogen. Results from the study showed that diverse positive emotional experiences are associated with the lowest levels of inflammation.

The lab is also researching positive and negative emotion regulation. “We often think of our negative emotions requiring regulation, but actually when you think about it, all emotions require regulation. Failure to regulate your positive as well as negative emotions can lead to poor health,” says Anthony Ong. Recent results from this research show that people whose emotions fluctuate from day to day have the poorest sleep, and a person’s inability to maintain positive emotions amid stress predicts not just poor sleep but higher levels of inflammation.

Relationship Lab
Dave Burbank

Researchers in the Relationships Lab study social relationships and health. One area of focus aims to understand the health effects of loneliness in older adults. The lab’s research also seeks to understand how positive social relationships contribute to greater wellbeing and longevity.

“The most recent study to emerge from the Relationship Lab investigated how perceived partner responsiveness—or the extent to which individuals felt supported, cared for, appreciated, and validated—can make a significant impact on health and even the risk of mortality. Researchers tracked 1,208 adults, 25 to 74 years old at the start, over 20 years. Those who reported a significant drop in partner responsiveness over the first decade also reported more negative reactions to common daily stresses at the 10-year point, and it was these unpleasant reactions (fear, frustration, etc.) that predicted a greater likelihood of dying 20 years from the start of the study.”

Race and Class Lab
Dave Burbank

The Race and Class Lab is dedicated to understanding a broad range of issues on race and social class in the United States. How does race-related stress influence the body? How does the role of cultural resources offset the effects of socioeconomic hardship and racial discrimination? Do a person’s positive feelings toward their ethnicity or race affect their health?

In a study published in 2017, the lab, in conjunction with researchers from Harvard University and the University of Southern California, found that among African Americans, the experience of everyday discrimination and unfair treatment contributed to higher levels of allostatic load—the wear and tear on the body that accumulates as a person is repeatedly exposed to chronic stress.

The lab is also interested in understanding the positive side of race. In an ongoing project done in conjunction with the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, the lab is exploring the extent to which feeling positive about one’s race and ethnicity, or positive ethnic-racial affect, influences minority youth mental health outcomes.

Collaborating to Understand Human Health

What role do positive emotions play in helping people recover from stress? Do people with diverse emotional experiences have better health outcomes? What is the impact of loneliness on aging? What does it mean to be in a responsive romantic relationship? The Human Health Labs at Cornell University are tackling these research questions. The labs were launched in October 2017 in an effort to foster new synergies across campus, organize different lines of research, and spark new collaborations with people in a way that was not previously possible.

The labs work to understand health across four dimensions: aging, emotion, relationships, and race and social class. Research methods include laboratory-based experiments, intensive longitudinal studies, national surveys, behavioral measures, and biomarker assessments.

“The purpose of the Human Health Labs,” says Anthony Ong, Human Development, and director of the Human Health Labs, “is to create a lab without walls—a virtual lab where existing and new collaborations can work seamlessly. By bringing together researchers from different fields, we will be able to make more radical discoveries and impacts.”