Jeffrey Stokes

Jeffrey Stokes

Qian Song

Qian Song

What’s better than a grant funding new faculty research? Two grants.

Two assistant professors from the McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Department recently won two-year grants of $152,500 each from the National Institute on Aging. Work on both projects began recently.

Jeffrey Stokes received a grant to study the impact of loneliness of a spouse on the health and well-being of both older adult partners in a marriage. Qian Song is the principle investigator on a project that won a grant to examine the long-term effects of job loss on health in a setting that mimics a natural experiment – the massive layoffs of State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) workers in urban China.

Stokes pointed out the distinction between the widely studied condition of social isolation and that of loneliness, the focus of his project. “As experiences, they are related but different,” he said. “My hope is that this kind of research will give us a better understanding the process and ramifications of loneliness. The unique aspect of this research is the focus on how married partners affect one another over time.”

He said loneliness can be “contagious” within a marriage of older adults, affecting the emotional and — potentially — physical health of both partners. He will use data from the 2006-2016 waves of the Health and Retirement Study to examine possible mechanisms for that phenomena, including stress and anxiety from having a lonely partner, the contagion of loneliness itself within marriage and the development of deleterious health behaviors that can result from loneliness.

“This research will explore each of these potential pathways to demonstrate not just whether but also how loneliness gets ‘under the skin’ to impair the health of older adults in the context of marriage,” Stokes said.

Song, who recently joined the UMass Boston Gerontology faculty from the RAND Corp., is working with former colleagues James P. Smith and Esther Friedman on her study.

Their work is intended to improve understanding of short- and long-term effects of job loss on health, the mechanisms of that relationship, and how such effects differ by gender, family contexts, occupation prestige and education levels of individuals. It will also identify the career stages and economic contexts that further victimize those who lost their jobs.

Prior to the mid-1990s, Chinese urban workers at SOEs enjoyed the government’s strong commitment to lifetime employment, welfare benefits, and social prestige elevated by state resources. It was rare for SOE workers to change job voluntarily or be laid off due to personal performance at that time.

But a period of massive SOE layoffs began later in the 1990s. From 1995 to 2004, the number of workers in the Chinese state sector decreased from 144 million to 78 million, according to the World Bank. Most of those job losses were the result of policy change, rather than job performance or market competition.

“Personally, while growing up, I started to know more and more people around me who were laid off from SOEs,” Song said. “Their lives and families usually took an abrupt turn after their layoffs. As a researcher, I have been longing to find a way to better understand the well-being of this group. I am glad I finally got the chance to do it.”

Song and her colleagues will use the China Health and Nutrition Survey (1993-2005) and the China Health, Retirement Longitudinal Study (2011-2018) to research the health impacts of those job losses.

“In addition to its strong causal implications, this work is important for aging research because given its study periods – over two decades of observation – we are able to identify the long-term effect on health, ” said Song. “We use a broad spectrum of health outcomes in this project, including dementia.”