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Substance Use and the Aging Experiences of the Woodlawn Cohort: Pathways to the 50s

Kerry Green investigates the factors affecting health and substance use among mid-life African Americans

African Americans in their 50s are more likely to experience poor health and have nearly twice the mortality rate of Whites. Older African Americans also have higher rates of persistent or recurrent substance use problems and worse consequences related to substance use. They are also less likely to quit smoking. Although it is purported that these adverse outcomes are due to a combination of disproportionately greater adversity over the life course (e.g., poverty, crime, discrimination) and unhealthy coping behaviors, few studies have prospectively examined these aspects of the lives of African Americans from childhood into the 50s or beyond to understand the processes that lead to unsuccessful (and successful) aging. Dr. Kerry Green has been awarded an MPRC seed grant in order to conduct a pilot study to identify patterns of substance use and health over the life course. This study will examine the long-term influence of individuals’ risk factors and adverse circumstances on substance abuse from childhood into middle age, and will attempt to determine the moderating role of education, social support, and religiosity, that may alter the trajectory between early disadvantage and later substance use and health.

Dr. Green’s study builds on the Woodlawn Study, which followed 1242 children who entered first grade in 1966 in Woodlawn, a poor Chicago neighborhood. In the original study, information from mothers and teachers, and official school, criminal, and death records were integrated with reports from cohort members themselves to build a comprehensive study that provides an invaluable opportunity to examine social adaptation and health over the life course for an understudied population. Follow-ups were conducted at age 16 and again at ages 32 and 42. Dr. Green plans to conduct another follow-up with these same individuals at age 55. The resulting dataset will allow for an in-depth exploration of both normative development and deviance over a period of fifty years. Participants in the Woodlawn Study were born in 1960 and are part of an age cohort that is considered to have high rates of adolescent substance use and is unlikely to age out of substance abuse. This fifth round of data collection in the 50s is crucial for understanding individual and contextual life course factors affecting drug use and the aging experience.

During the pilot phase of the project, Dr. Green will locate and contact 125 randomly-chosen study participants, with the goal of having 80% agree to a future telephone interview. The pilot work will provide insight into the most efficient way to locate participants, common barriers to agreeing to be interviewed, and the expected response rate. The pilot project will lay the groundwork for a full study with all the Woodlawn Study participants.

This study will enhance scholarly understanding of now substance abuse, violence, HIV risk, social roles, and life circumstances affect health at age 55. The study will extend knowledge of substance use patterns from childhood and test the “aging out” assumption, which may be less relevant for this generation of “baby-boomers.” Dr. Green will examine the risk factors and health consequences of these substance use patterns. She will also study the impact of the cumulative burden of economic, psychosocial, and environmental stressors experienced throughout life, hypothesized to relate to health decline among African Americans in their 50s. She will explore how family, education, religion, and gender influence successful aging. Findings will inform intervention development for these pervasive problems by identifying critical points of influence along the life course that alter or buffer risk trajectories.

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