Social Environment Notebook

Psychosocial Notebook

Allostatic Load Notebook

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Allostatic NotebookTable of Contents

Allostatic Load and Allostasis

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Behavioral and Social Research Program

National Institute on AgingNational Institutes of Health

NIA Exploratory Workshop on Allostatic Load

Washington, DC, November 29-30, 2007

Background Materials and Statements from November 2007 Workshop Participants

Compiled November 19, 2007


Background Statement for NIA Exploratory Workshop on Allostatic Load Lis Nielsen, NIA/BSR Teresa Seeman, UCLA

Chapter Contents


The concept of allostatic load has served as a framework for a large body of research on the integrative health psychology, epidemiology, and demography of aging. It is based on the hypothesis that there is a cumulative physiological risk associated with exposure to psychosocial stressors over the life-course. Among the attractions of such a concept is the existing body of evidence indicating that many psychosocial stressors appear to have small to modest associations with multiple different biological risk factors, reflecting links to most of the known major regulatory systems (e.g., cardiovascular, immune, HPA, SNS) Initial empirical work based on various cumulative indices of physiological risk has provided evidence consistent with the idea that greater cumulative dysregulation is associated with significantly greater risks for subsequent disease (cardiovascular disease), declines in physical and cognitive functioning and overall mortality (Seeman et al, 1997; Seeman et al, 2001; Karlamangla et al, 2002; Geronimus et al, 2006). Research has also documented that psychosocial conditions previously associated with greater morbidity and mortality (e.g., lower socio-economic status and poorer social engagement) are also associated with greater cumulative burdens of physiological dysregulation in multiple systems (Seeman et al, 2002; Seeman et al, 2004 Kubzansky et al 1999; Hu et al, 2006). Cumulative indices of allostatic load have also been positively related to measures of psychosocial stress in young adolescents (Evans et al, 2007) as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in mothers of pediatric cancer survivors (Glover et al, 2006) and adverse perinatal outcomes (Shannon et al, 2007).

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Workshop Goals

Important questions remain, however, regarding the conceptualization and operationalization of allostatic load as well as the overall utility of the concept in efforts to better understand trajectories of health and aging. The Behavioral and Social Research Program (BSR) at the National Institute on Aging seeks to advance research on biopsychosocial pathways of resilience and vulnerability to late life disease through a workshop on conceptual and methodological issues surrounding the concepts of allostatic load and cumulative physiological risk more generally. The goal of the 2007 workshop is to bring together scientists from diverse disciplines who share an interest in understanding stress-health relationships from a life-course perspective, but who may differ in their approaches and commitment to the allostatic load model. We conceive of this group as a collaborative team whose interests are focused on what is needed to advance behavioral and social research on aging within this topic area.

The output of this workshop should include widely distributed publications that will serve as references for established and new researchers in the fields of behavioral and social aging research along with recommendations regarding needed research to advance our understanding of the biological pathways through which our life experiences impact on health and aging.

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Aging and allostatic load

Aging is associated with increased risk for most forms of disability and chronic disease, with the majority of older adults experiencing two or more chronic conditions by the time they reach old age (Singer, Ryff, & Seeman, 2004). It has been hypothesized that cumulative lifetime exposure to social, psychological or environmental stressors increases the risk of multiple age-related health problems by disrupting the physiological regulatory systems that mediate the stress response. Allostatic load has been put forth as a model for how features of the psychosocial environment �get under the skin� and give rise to disease. The model (based on the concept of biological adaptation to duress first proposed by Cannon (1932) and Selye (1956, 1974), developed by McEwen and colleagues (McEwen and Stellar, 1993; McEwen, 1998; McEwen and Seeman, 1999; and elaborated most recently in a volume edited by Jay Schulkin, 2004) proposes that a key mediator of increasing risk for disease is the dysregulation of systems designed to balance the organism�s responses to environmental demands. Exposure to stress elicits adaptive physiological responses in regulatory systems including the hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA), the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) branches of the autonomic nervous system, and the cardiovascular and immune systems. Allostasis (related to homeostasis) is the adaptive maintenance of vitality in these systems via neuromodulation of motive states and behaviors in response to changing environmental circumstances. Allostatic load refers to the cumulative biological wear and tear that can result from excessive cycles of response (i.e., too frequent and/or of inappropriate duration or scope) in these systems as they seek to maintain allostasis in the face of environmental challenge. According to the theory, as these systems become taxed and dysregulated, they begin to exhibit imbalances in the primary neural mediators of the stress response, such as glucocorticoids, catecholamines and proinflammatory cytokines. Dysregulation is evidenced in both basal levels of system parameters - including circulating baseline levels of these hormones - as well as in patterns of dynamic response to stimuli. Chronic dysregulation is believed to confer cumulative physiological risk for disease and disability by causing damage to tissues and major organ systems.

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Mechanisms and measurement

At the level of mechanisms, it is well known that a host of stressors � social and environmental elicitors of negative emotions, pathogens, physical challenges - lead to activations of physiological systems designed to maintain balance (McEwen & Stellar, 1993). Moreover, accumulating evidence supports the notion that stressors such as lower socioeconomic status, early exposure to abuse, diminished social support, and conflictual relationships (to name a few) are associated with increased risks for poor mental and physical health outcomes and mortality (Taylor, Repetti, & Seeman, 1997).

As an initial attempt to operationalize the concept of allostatic load, Seeman, McEwen, and colleagues used existing data from the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging to develop an initial measure of allostatic load that represented a simple count of the number of critical biomarkers of cardiovascular, immune, and HPA axis dysfunction on which an individual is in the highest risk quartile. The biomarkers included in this summary measure were derived from available data from the MacArthur Study that represented parameters of major regulatory systems with known or hypothesized links to various major health endpoints, including disease, disability and mortality (Seeman et al, 1997). Population-based survey research, where much attention has focused on identifying biological markers that index risk for late life disease outcomes, has provided evidence that higher levels of allostatic load are associated with increased morbidity and mortality (Seeman et al, 1997; 2001) and that higher educational attainment and better social relationships are associated with lower levels of allostatic load (Seeman et al, 2002; 2004). Alternative measurement models for allostatic load (canonical correlation, recursive partitioning) have yielded findings consistent with earlier approaches (Karlamangla et al, 2002; Gruenewald et al, 2006).

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State of the evidence

Current evidence, however, does not provide definitive support for the proposed relationships between psychosocial stressors and dysregulation of biological systems supporting allostasis. Many biological regulatory systems appear to show age-related increase in levels of dysregulation, but age related changes are not uniform within populations. It is unknown what determines who exhibits such age-related changes and who manages to avoid them though a growing body of evidence points to socio-economic differences in rates of accumulation (those of lower SES exhibiting earlier and larger accumulations of AL; Crimmins et al, 2003; Seeman et al, 2004; Geronimus et al, 2006; Seeman et al, in press) as well as differences relating to socially supportive qualities of one�s relationships with others (Singer & Ryff, 1999; Seeman et al, 2002). In addition, there is a growing body of correlational evidence indicating that individuals vary in their response to stressors based on differences in personality, coping and emotional regulatory styles, and social and cultural environments (e.g., Ryff, Singer, & Love, 2004). Thus some individuals seem resilient to diseases of aging and present with a profile of positive health and well-being that may protect stress regulatory systems from dysregulation. Questions remain as to whether some people are genetically disposed to greater resilience to stress, or whether life-style, psychosocial, and socioeconomic factors are responsible for these differences.

Not all scientists are convinced that biological measures have added significantly to our understanding of risk and resilience pathways. Some have questioned whether biomarkers actually measure, as hypothesized, the mediators of psychosocial impacts on health. Even among social and behavioral researchers committed to employing biomarkers and physiological measures in their research, there is an awareness of serious gaps in the theoretical model and needs for refinement of methodologies and analytical strategies. Much more needs to be known about which biomarkers (and/or combinations of biomarkers) are most useful in predicting health outcomes in older age, and which psychosocial factors are the key predictors of change in these biomarkers over time. These researchers continue to wrest with measurement issues around �allostatic load� as they strive to keep apace of findings emerging from the biological literature on disease markers and key indicators of age-related physiological decline. The current workshop will focus on these pressing conceptual and measurement issues.

While the allostatic load model places emphasis on the biological pathways through which psychosocial factors have their effects on health outcomes, it should be emphasized that the fully integrative biopsychosocial model is recursive, with numerous and complex hypothesized bidirectional causal pathways. Real progress in integrative physiology requires the development of new analytical techniques that enable exploration of these multiple causative links, as well as advances in measurement at the level of the physical environment, the social context, the psychological subject, and the biological markers and mechanisms underlying health and disease.

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Topics to be addressed in the workshop and papers

Conceptual and theoretical issues

Allostatic load is both a theoretical construct and a measure of cumulative wear and tear on physiological symptoms due to chronic stress. As a theoretical construct, it is a preliminary attempt to formulate the relationship between environmental stressors and disease, by hypothesizing mechanisms whereby multiple kinds of stressors confer risk simultaneously in multiple physiological systems (Singer & Ryff, 2001). Important questions surrounding the concept of allostatic load concern (1) the relationship of diverse research findings to the overall theory, (2) the distinction between primary mediators of disease and secondary outcomes, (3) the links between allostatic load and specific disease outcomes, i.e., does allostatic load represents a unique �syndrome� or an early stage on the pathway to multiple diseases, and (4) whether there are different allostatic load pathways, and if so, how do these differ from unique disease pathways?

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Methodological: measurement of allostatic load

Which biomarkers? The currently available assortment of biomarkers for measuring components of allostatic load is extensive and includes: anthropometric, cardiovascular and metabolic measures, inflammation markers, measures of HPA axis and SNS activity, measures of renal function, lung function, bone density, immune functioning, antioxidants, genetic markers, and adiposity. One of the aims of this workshop is to encourage researchers to move beyond examination of how a single psychosocial factor influences a single biological system or health outcome and toward a more comprehensive view of the various profiles of dysregulation that may develop. Greater attention needs to be paid to primary mediators that can affect multiple other regulatory systems (e.g. cortisol, inflammatory cytokines, catecholamines) as well as to anabolic hormones that may mediate resilience (e.g. Igf-1, DHEA, testosterone).

Multi-system approaches. It is inherent in the hypothesis that a lifetime of exposure to stressors of diverse origin will have cumulative effects on multiple biological systems that we must be interested in change in multiple systems over time. A limitation of most prior work on allostatic load model is that it has been based on measures of biomarkers from only one point in time. However, if chronic stress disrupts allostatic load component systems sequentially, it may be more appropriate to look first at early alterations in neuroendocrine systems, later at elevations in inflammatory markers, and even later at markers of metabolic syndrome. One key question to be addressed by the workshop will be what the proper models are for looking at this. Longitudinal measurements of biomarkers may provide critical information about the pathways of cumulative dysregulation that lead to disease.

Biological aging as the background. The impact of chronic and daily stressors on regulatory systems occurs against a background of normal age-related declines in immune function, and the interaction of these factors may pose additional health risks. Older adults appear to show even greater immunological impairments associated with stress or depression than young adults, making factors that are associated with greater stress potentially more lethal to the elderly (Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser, 2002). It will be important to understand how accumulation of allostatic load interacts with �normal� age-related dysregulation in each of the systems that modulate stress responses.

Multiple levels of analysis. Additionally, this workshop should explore research strategies that permit the examination of these relationships at multiple levels (from more molecular up through more macro-level assessments of social conditions) by offering models for exploring pathways between levels and examples of successful research that has adopted this approach. Importantly, measurement of biological dysregulation requires both an examination of differences in basal activity as well as and examination of system dynamics in response to challenge.

Measures of reactivity in systems. While measures of stress reactivity tend to be of higher cost, they are ultimately important for testing the concept of allostatic load, since patterns of reaction in these systems may be the earliest signs of dysregulation. Research is needed to clarify where in system dynamics dysregulations are most evident or most consequential, e.g. in response versus recovery parameters. A variety of challenge paradigms exist for studying the effects of stress on regulatory systems, including wound healing, vaccination response, and social and cognitive stress paradigms designed for use with measures of psychophysiological reactivity. What do the findings from these sorts of studies tell us about individual differences in stress responsivity, links between dysregulation and specific psychosocial factors and health outcomes, and relationships between dysregulation on the various measures? Emotional reactivity plays a pivotal role in the response to stress. How much of emotional reactivity is biologically, genetically or environmentally determined? What are the current measures of emotional reactivity to stress, and what is known about how these develop and vary over the life course?

Lab-survey linkages. Importantly, links need to be forged between studies that focus on detailed evaluations of biological mechanisms in the laboratory or field and population-based studies with greater generalizability that don�t allow for such detailed physiological assessment. Given the complementing strengths of laboratory and ambulatory research it is now possible and fruitful to extend traditional laboratory studies with experience sampling methodologies and corresponding ambulatory physiological, behavioral, and endocrinological assessments. Such studies would provide insight into the possibility that dysregulation is initially most evident in patterns of response, while more basal activity is less easily affected and may only show age-related changes relatively late in the process of development of disease and dysregulation. Participants are encouraged to envision ideal research designs that would provide insights on changes in regulatory systems and their association with past and current psychosocial factors. The workshop should provide a picture of state of the art research in this area, and point to potentials for and obstacles to improvements in research designs.

Genetics. As we learn more about the composition of the genome and mechanisms controlling gene expression, and as inexpensive methods for measuring DNA develop rapidly, it will be possible to integrate genetic data with more comprehensive models that include information on behavioral, social and other characteristics of individuals, and allowing study of gene-environment interaction. Additionally, there is an emerging interest in studying the genetic basis for individual differences in response to or susceptibility to stress, a more nuanced appreciation of the specific psychosocial phenotypes that play a role in health outcomes and the underlying genetic and gene by environment interactions that determine their expression.

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Additional measurement issues include:

What selection of currently available biomarkers are most predictive of specific health outcomes, and which are indicative of health status not revealed by self-report?

What are the criteria by which new biomarkers should be evaluated for inclusion in research on cumulative physiological risk?

What cumulative measures of allostatic load show most promise? How are they best analyzed? How should measures be combined to best clarify processes of change in health?

Do different biomarkers mean different things at different times in life, and if so, which measures are meaningful at which ages?

For different regulatory systems that change over time, how does one model the interrelated effects of these systems on outcomes?

What needs to be done to clarify the links between primary mediators and secondary outcomes (e.g., inflammation, antioxidants and hormones as primary, bone health and hypertension as secondary)?

How do measures of allostatic load relate to indices such as Metabolic Syndrome and the Framingham Risk Score?

How reliable are existing biomarker measures of cumulative risk? How reliable are measures of the individual components of cumulative risk scores?

Relatedly, explorations of variability in primary mediators over time are needed, as little is known about this. Is variability on specific measures itself an outcome of potential significance? Are individuals who show greater variability at greater risk than those who are relatively stable on measures?

Are different physiological systems more or less vulnerable to different types of psychosocial stressors (financial, social isolation, interpersonal conflict) and what are the implications for disease outcomes?

Is there more than one allostatic load profile, e.g. hypocortisolism vs. hypercortisolism; hypercholesterolism vs. hypocholesterolism, and do the health consequences of these profiles change with age?

What is the relative importance of early life exposures to stress, versus later life exposures? Are there paths of no return, critical periods? Are effects of stress reversible? Does this vary by life period exposure?

How do profiles of allostatic load differ by ethnicity and gender?

How should we account for individual differences in responses to stress?

What kinds of studies could be envisioned that would permit both pre- and post-stress biological measures, as well as measures of individual difference characteristics that may modify patterns of physiological response?

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Cannon, W.B. (1932). The Wisdom of the Body. New York: Norton. Cited in Schulkin J. Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Costs of Physiological Adaptation. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Crimmins EM, Johnson M, Hayward M, Seeman T. Age differences in allostatic load: an index of physiological dysregulation. Experimental Gerontology. July 38: 731-734, 2003.

Evans GW, Kim P, Ting AH, Tesher HB, Shannis D. Cumulative risk, maternal responsiveness and allostatic load among young adolescents. Dev Psychol 43:341-51, 2007.

Geronimus A.T., Hicken, M., Keene, D., Bound, J. "Weathering" and age patterns of allostatic load scores among Blacks and Whites in the United States. AJPH 96, 826-33, 2006

Glover DA, Stuber M, Poland RE. Allostatic Load in women with and without PTSD symptoms. Psychiatry, 69:191-203, 2006.

Gruenewald TL, Seeman TE, Ryff CD, Karlamangla AS, Singer BH. Combinations of Biomarkers Predictive of Later Life Mortality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(38):14158-14163, 2006

Hu P, Wagle N, Goldman N, Weinstein M, Seeman TE. The Associations between Socioeconomic Status, Allostatic Load and Measures of Health in Older Taiwanese Persons: Taiwan Social Environment and Biomarkers of Aging Study. Journal of Biosocial Science, Oct 20;:1-12, 2006. .

Karlamangla, A.S., B.H. Singer, B.S. McEwen, J.W. Rowe, and Seeman TE. Allostatic lead as a predictor of functional decline: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, Vol 55, No. 7, 696-710, July 2002.

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Glaser R. Depression and immune function: central pathways to morbidity and mortality. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 2002 Oct;53(4):873-6.

Kubzansky LD, Kawachi I, Sparrow D. Socioeconomic status, hostility, and risk factor clustering in the Normative Aging Study: any help from the concept of allostatic load? Annals of Behavioral Medicine 1999;21(4):330-8

McEwen BS. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators. New England Journal of Medicine 1998;338:171-9

McEwen BS, Seeman TE. Protective and damaging effects of mediators of stress. In Socioeconomic Status and Health in Industrial Nations: Social, Psychological and Biological Pathways, Adler NE, Marmot M, McEwen BS (eds), NY: NY Academic of Sciences, 896:30-47, 1999.

McEwen BS, Stellar E. Stress and the individual: mechanisms leading to disease. Archives of Internal Medicine 1993;153:2093-101.

Ryff CD & Singer B (eds), Emotion, Social Relationships and Health. New York: Oxford Press, pp189-209, 2001.

Ryff CD, Singer BH, Dienberg Love G. Positive health: Connecting well-being with biology. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 359:1383-94, 2004.

Schulkin J. Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Costs of Physiological Adaptation. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Seeman TE, Singer B, Horwitz R, McEwen BS. "The Price of Adaptation --Allostatic Load & Its Health Consequences: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging" Archives of Internal Medicine 157:2259-2268, 1997.

Seeman TE, Singer B, Rowe J, McEwen B. Exploring a new concept of cumulative biological risk -- Allostatic load & its health consequences: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 98(8): 4770-4775, 2001.

Seeman TE, Singer B, Ryff C Levy-Storms L. Psychosocial factors and the development of allostatic load. Psychosomatic Medicine 64:395-406, May/June 2002.

Seeman TE, Crimmins E, Bucur A., Huang MH, Singer B, Bucur A, Gruenewald T, Berkman LF, Reuben DB. Cumulative Biological Risk and Socio-Economic Differences in Mortality: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging. Soc Sci & Med 58, 1985-1997, 2004

Seeman TE, Merkin S, Crimmins E, Koretz B, Charrette S, Karlamangla A. Education, Income and Ethnic Differences in Cumulative Biological Risk Profiles in a National Sample of US Adults: NHANES III; Social Science and Medicine, in press.

Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill. Cited in Schulkin J. Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Costs of Physiological Adaptation. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Selye, H. (1974). Stress without Distres. New York: New American Library. Cited in Schulkin J. Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Costs of Physiological Adaptation. Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Shannon M, King TL, Kennedy HP. Allostasis: a theoretical framework for understanding and evaluating prenatal health outcomes. J. Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 36:125-134, 2007.

Singer B, Ryff C, Seeman TE. Operationalizing Allostatic Load. In Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Cost of Physiological Adaptation.

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J. Schulkin (ed). Pp 113-149, 2004

Singer B, Ryff CD. Hierarchies of life histories and associated health risks. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences 1999;896:96-115.

Taylor SE, Repetti RL, Seeman TE. "What is an Unhealthy Environment and How Does It Get Under the Skin?" Annual Review of Psychology, 48:411-47, 1997

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Charge to Participants in the NIA Workshop on Allostatic Load

In preparation for the upcoming NIA Exploratory Workshop on Allostatic Load, participants were asked to prepare a short (2-4 pages) statements outlining their views on how research on allostatic load and the study of cumulative risk more generally can be most fruitfully advanced in the behavioral and social sciences. These statements are intended to set the foundations for dialogue, at the workshop, on research and resource needs for achieving this goal.

As described in the foregoing background document, there are a number of conceptual and methodological issues that could be addressed at the workshop. Participants were asked to offer creative, well-informed input on where the emerging research opportunities and needs lie within thier own and related fields.

Participants were asked to consider the following when preparing their statements:

How has the concept of allostatic load had a positive (or negative) impact on work in your field? Are there more valuable alternative approaches to the study of cumulative physiological risk, and if so, what are they and what is their relative advantage? What could be done to make this concept more valuable to research on social and behavioral factors in aging? What are the most critical measurement issues, in your view? Are there specific data needs for addressing these questions? What would be the most important "next steps" in moving research on allostatic load, or cumulative physiological risk more generally, forward?