Brody, and Benowitz, 1990). However, much of the recent research on aging has focused on the effects of chronic social and psychological stress and measures associated with the biological concepts of “robustness” and “allostatic load.”
Social scientists studying health and aging face a great challenge. The health outcomes we study involve interactions among a wide variety of physical and cognitive conditions. The social and behavioral environments we want to relate to health problems are equally complex and difficult to measure. We therefore seek associations between very heterogeneous causes and equally heterogeneous outcomes. Biomarkers offer more narrowly defined, more proximal intermediate outcomes or, as discussed below, more specific characterization of social and behavioral environments.
Before trying to evaluate recent progress in using biomarkers to study health and aging, it is useful to review a few of the social and biological concepts that are central to much of the research. This review therefore begins with discussions of chronic social–psychological stress and biological robustness. The next section considers strategies for identifying which biomarkers are potentially most valuable for social science research on stress and aging. This is followed by a discussion of life-cycle approaches to understanding the aging process from conception to senescence. The chapter concludes with a few words of caution for future research and an overview of the progress in using biomarkers in social science research on aging.
There are both short-term and long-term perspectives for studying the health impact of stress. In the short term, stress generally refers to events or circumstances that elicit an emotional (usually negative) response. Episodes of stress can affect the immune system and therefore susceptibility to disease (Segerstrom and Miller, 2004). Recently, social scientists have begun to study the cumulative effects of repeated episodes of a wider range of social-psychological, physical, and environmental stressors. This literature emphasizes links between stress and such chronic diseases as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
We have a lot to learn about the sources of stress. For example, the Whitehall study quickly showed that the concept of “executive stress” was not consistent with the gradient they observed; the executives at the top of the hierarchy had the lowest risk of several major causes of death. This raises the question of whether we know real stress when we see it or whether we can identify sources of chronic stress.
Ironically, biomarkers can help us recognize stressful circumstances.