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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Dec. 8, 2006

Invited behind front doors

by Mike Ferlazzo, News Service

Fred Lorenz (left) &
K.A.S. Wickrama

Fred Lorenz (left) & K.A.S. Wickrama

Families don't typically invite others in to make their lives an open book. But since 1989, researchers from Iowa State's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research have received access to more than 500 young adults from Iowa families to study the complexities of family relationships. The research has yielded four books.

What started as a study on family relationships in the 1980s has, over time, also led to research in such areas as adolescent behavior and divorce.

This fall, researchers Fred Lorenz, K.A.S. Wickrama and Rebecca Burzette received a $2.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue their 17-year-old work. A new study will focus on relationship development and health in young adults.

They've been studying the same families so long that many of the initial children are now young adults who are married with children of their own. Originally from eight counties in Iowa, some have spread out across the country.

"The distinctive strength of this study is that it contains multiple waves of data from now three generations within a family," said Lorenz, who is a University Professor of both sociology and statistics. "Some of the kids will soon be as old as their parents were when we first began this study."

Farm crisis fallout

The initial purpose of the project was to study how families adapted to economic hardship, represented in Iowa by the financial "farm crisis" of the late 1980s. Researchers studied the reasons why there were more divorces and more adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems under conditions of economic hardship.

The research team has been videotaping family members interacting with each other over the duration of this study, because past studies showed that individuals are poor reporters of their own behaviors. As the adolescent children have grown into adults, the overall focus has shifted away from economic issues to behavioral issues such as how parents transmit parenting practices to their children, behavioral disorders and relationship quality.

"We've been videotaping our subjects interacting with each other to see how their relationships develop," Lorenz said. "We've looked at the intergeneration transmission of parenting behaviors and what happens between generations that can change or alter the timing of parenthood. We've also been interested in whether the characteristics of the parents' relationships show up in their children's relationships."

The researchers believe that adolescents' experiences in their families are important in shaping early adult romantic relationships. The research also indicates that the quality of their romantic relationships affects changes in physical and emotional health.

As they followed their subjects beyond adolescence, another issue presented itself: divorce.

Lorenz and Wickrama were lead authors on a related paper titled "The Short-Term and Decade-Long Effects of Divorce on Women's Midlife Health," which was published last summer in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

"What we found was that the act of getting a divorce produced no immediate effects on physical health, but it did have effects on mental health," Lorenz said. "Ten years later, those effects on mental health led to effects in physical health."

Divorce is bad for your health

In the study, immediately after their divorce (1991-94), women reported 60 percent higher levels of psychological distress than those of married women, but no differences in physical illness. The increased distress was found after controlling for other sources of stress, such as income -- which was only about half the amount reported by married women. An important factor was the experience of stressful life events, according to Lorenz.

A decade later (2001), the divorced women reported 37 percent more illness when compared to their married counterparts -- even after controlling for age, remarriage, education, income and earlier measures of prior health. Lorenz believes that other conditions associated with divorce -- perhaps social isolation and relatively poor job opportunities -- are important factors in explaining the outcome.

"According to the data, it looks like they (divorced women) are trapped in this vicious circle of financial problems and other stressful life events -- such as having their safety net destroyed in the form of housing, insurance, transportation, social support, sharing in the kids, etc.," said Wickrama, a professor of human development and family studies.

They documented 46 illnesses that subjects could suffer from -- ranging from the common cold and sore throats to heart conditions, diabetes and cancer. The severity of these illnesses appears to be linked to the quality of the marriage before the divorce.

"Among married couples, we predicted that couples with good quality marriages did not experience early onset of hypertension, while those with bad marriages were more likely to experience it," Wickrama said.

In addition to the four books, their research has produced more than 100 research papers published in professional journals. It also has been featured in several national news stories, including one in The New York Times.


Fred Lorenz and K.A.S. Wickrama have led a 17-year study on the family relationships of 500 young adults from Iowa. Their research has produced four books.


"The distinctive strength of this study is that it contains multiple waves of data from now three generations within a family. Some of the kids will soon be as old as their parents were when we first began this study."

Fred Lorenz, University Professor of sociology and statistics