Methodological Considerations for the Examination of Complex Systems in Aging

By Whitfield, Keith E.; Edwards, Christopher L. et al. | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Methodological Considerations for the Examination of Complex Systems in Aging


Whitfield, Keith E., Edwards, Christopher L., Nelson, Tracy L., Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


ABSTRACT

Biobehavioral relationships encompass the exploration of links between biological, psychosocial, and behavioral factors related to health. The exploration of these relationships is complex and requires multiple methods and conceptualizations to make significant advances to unravel the intricacies of aging. This broadly defined approach desperately needs to incorporate theory-driven explanatory models and help refine how to understand aging from this kind of interdisciplinary perspective. The goal of this chapter is to provide a brief discussion of some of the more obvious and popular models and approaches to studying health from a biobehavioral perspective. The authors will also attempt to compel the reader to consider the implications as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.

INTRODUCTION

The science of studying biobehavioral relationships as they relate to health encompasses the exploration of links between biological, psychosocial, and behavioral factors related to health (Pellmar, 2000). Research designed to investigate phenomena using multidisciplinary approaches also has the challenge of identifying the most useful approach for testing hypotheses. Examining biobehavioral relationships is a complex undertaking and the best approach is not always clear. However, the use of multiple perspectives enhances our understanding of complex multidimensional phenomena. Research designs that use combinations of the best of biology and behavioral research designs and statistical methods yield the most insightful information. In this chapter, we offer a few of the more obvious and popular approaches and attempt to compel the reader to consider the implications as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.

One of the primary challenges to making advances in the study of biobehavioral aspects of aging is that many researchers do not have formal background training to conceptually and methodologically design or adequately interpret the findings. This new research area desperately needs to integrate theory-driven explanatory models into existing models of research (Cauce, Coronado, & Watson, 1998; Whitfield, Allaire, Belue, & Edwards, 2008; Whitfield & Baker-Thomas, 1999).

General Models

While there is no one biobehavioral model, there are conceptual models designed for the inclusion and integration, as well as accounting for the interactions between behavioral and social factors with biological and physiological factors that impact health (Figure 3.1). One could argue that the biobehavioral models may examine the relation between behavior and biology in social contexts - norms New York Academy of Sciences paper on levels.

Biobehavioral research often relies on a disease-focused approach. This approach begins with a condition/disease and identifies causal factors, biological and social, which are the etiological impetus for the disease state. Some behavioral research begins with defined behavioral factors like stress and then identifies the subsequent health conditions thought to arise. We define this type of approach as an "emergent approach" to biobehavioral relationships. An emergent approach makes no preconceived notions about endpoints. Instead, factors under study are related to outcomes after specified periods of time. This approach provides an alternative course of investigation for identifying causal links. Much of what has been studied relative to disease has omitted behavioral and social origins (Whitfield, Weidner, Clark, & Anderson, 2002).

Another less studied perspective on disease is the examination of comorbid states. Because many of the chronic conditions that are the focus of health-related research are related to age, advanced age brings increases in the number of cooccurring chronic conditions. For example, the impact of the comorbidity of hypertension and diabetes and the subsequent impact on cognitive functioning are highlighted in this volume (see Waldstein et al. …

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