Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, May 29, 2014

Herd explores influences on aging

Pamela Herd Pamela Herd

Pamela Herd is always thinking about long-term implications, even when she works on a research project on pregnancy.

As the director of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, the La Follette School sociologist is teasing out the mental health effects of unplanned pregnancies.

"Having a child is what sociologists call a key event that has lifetime implications," Herd says. "I want know about the mental health implications for women of having children whose births were not planned."

The WLS follows the life course of 10,317 Wisconsin high school graduates of 1957 and randomly selected siblings through repeated surveys (in 1964, 1975, 1993, 2005 and 2011) and through data resources such as high school records, yearbooks, and disability, Social Security, Medicare and death records. Sociologists, epidemiologists, public health researchers, economists, political scientists, physicians, and even a few evolutionary biologists around the world use the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. As a National Academy of Sciences report noted, it is probably the most comprehensive cohort longitudinal study in existence.

Using WLS data, Herd and her colleague Jenny Higgins from the Department of Gender and Women's Studies are looking at how women's reports of unplanned pregnancies in the mid 1970s correlate to women's answers to questions about depression in their early 50s. Of all the pregnancies carried to term by women in the study, 34 percent were unwanted or mistimed, meaning the women said they did want another child, but that they had not planned to get pregnant at that time.

Herd's early findings suggest that women who had reported unwanted pregnancies were more likely to have struggled with depression at some point.

"The research is filling an important gap in our knowledge about aging and the life course," Herd says. "We know a lot about the effects on children whose parents did not plan the pregnancy — in aggregate, the effect is very small on children. But, we don't know much about the effect on women, and now we can start to see that the mothers who had unwanted pregnancies may have some consequent mental health problems."

Herd is also guiding the WLS as it added genetics to its analysis, thanks to a $6.7 million National Institutes for Health grant. WLS began collecting DNA samples in 2007-08. "We will be able to match genetic markers against the other data we have collected," Herd says. "Ultimately, we will better understand the genetics of aging, including behavior, cognition, affect, personality, health, disease, and mortality."

In another WLS project, Herd is leading an effort to facilitate research on the microorganisms inhabiting the human body —the gut microbiome. "This research will then examine the links between the microbiome, and obesity and diabetes, diseases that correlate to low levels of educational attainment," Herd says. "While this field of science is developing rapidly, the research is inhibited by small sample sizes and limited environmental data for the participants. WLS's comprehensive lifetime profiles of our participants will allow a range of innovative and potentially important analyses to better understand how the microbiome links to health."

"The WLS is a nice representation of the Wisconsin Idea because of this collaborative process between the class of 1957 and the university," Herd says. "Participants have given an enormous amount of time to the study in the last 60 years. Much of what we have learned about who ages successfully and why is due to the dedication of our participants."

Keys to successful aging, Herd adds, include factors such as strong social relationships and stable work lives.

The new addition of genetic data will allow for further exploration of how to age well, Herd says. "The social environment influences how genetics affect people, which we are just beginning to be able to learn more about. For example, how does educational attainment modify the genetic risk for cognitive decline in late life?"

Herd emphasizes that education and cognition play key roles in shaping health and well-being across the life course. She has explored whether what people learn in school influences their ability to manage their health through gains in cognitive human capital (e.g. knowledge and ability to understand information) and/or non-cognitive (social and behavioral) human capital.

The research results from WLS, disseminated via journal articles and in an annual report to WLS participants, have broad implications for policymakers who are concerned with health, Herd says.

In the La Follette School class room, Herd focuses on policy analysis, a foundational course for every domestic and international public affairs student. "The policy analysis courses gives our students skills that they take with them into the work place," Herd says, "whether that be a state agency, a nonprofit organization or a private business."

Herd is also working on a book with public management scholar Donald Moynihan on administrative burden, the difficulties and impediments people encounter when they try to access government services. The book will examine access to social rights via healthcare, including reproductive rights and the Affordable Care Act, and income supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. They also plan to examine access to political rights via burdens in election and immigration policies.

"The literature focused on red tape tends to emphasize how it impacts bureaucratic actors, for example public managers, but little attention has been paid to the implication of this burden for citizens," Herd says.