NIH grant allows comparison of midlife experiences across the world

ASU professor to study mechanisms contributing to poorer mental, physical health of middle-aged Americans

November 7, 2022

Many American adults aged 40 to 65 are struggling. 

The life expectancy of this group is declining, driven by disease and “deaths of despair” like drug overdoses and suicide. Research from Arizona State University has shown they are also less healthy, mentally and physically, than previous generations of Americans were in midlife. Portrait of Frank Infurna, ASU associate professor of psychology. Associate Professor of psychology Frank Infurna. Photo by Rob Ewing Download Full Image

Frank Infurna, associate professor of psychology at ASU, is determined to find out why this is happening and what can be done to mitigate or even prevent these phenomena.

“Our previous work has shown that middle-aged adults in Germany, Mexico and South Korea are thriving. People born in the 1960s in those countries are doing better than people born in the 1940s and 1950s. But in the U.S., the opposite is true. Middle-aged Americans are doing worse than their same-age peers in other countries and compared to other birth cohorts of Americans,” Infurna said. “We want to know if these trends exist in other high-income countries like the U.S. and quantify any differences.”

Infurna was recently awarded five years of funding from the National Institute of Aging to dig into how the experience of middle-aged Americans directly compares to middle-aged adults in other wealthy, industrialized nations across the world.

The power of harmonized data

To study middle-aged Americans, Infurna relies on large datasets that include information about mental and physical health, years of education and finances. 

These data sets are made up of nationally representative samples, which means that demographic characteristics like age, race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, income, education and employment of the participant group are matched to the country as a whole. Such data sets give researchers like Infurna a broad picture of what middle-aged adults experience.

When the information that makes up these data sets is collected in different ways — for example cognitive health might be measured using two distinct questionnaires — researchers can only make indirect comparisons based on general trends. Previous work from Infurna’s lab has compared middle-aged Americans to peers in other countries, such as Mexico, South Korea, Australia and Germany, in this way.

Infurna’s current work will leverage harmonized data, which means the contents of one large-scale data set can be directly compared to another. This project will use nationally representative data sets from the U.S., EnglandSouth KoreaChinaMexico and parts of Europe, including Germany, Spain, France, Greece and Italy. In summary, the researchers will compare middle-aged Americans to their peers located in 16 other countries.

“These data sets are big, which is important for the questions we want to answer. The U.S. data set — The (University of Michigan) Health and Retirement Study — includes over 30,000 Americans older than 50 years,” Infurna said. “We expect that in total, we will be analyzing data from over 100,000 people across the world.”

The harmonized data will let the research team trace the life trajectories that lead to mental and physical health differences between middle-aged Americans and the rest of the world. They will be able to examine finances (like the impact of overall household wealth, income and debt), including specifics about out-of-pocket health care expenses. Comparison of physical activity levels and how middle-aged adults across the world balance caring of aging parents with having children are also possible topics of study.

“This work is the first step in studying the extent to which differences exist and uncovering reasons why differences exist across countries,” Infurna said. “Any findings could also contribute to identifying factors that can promote resilience among adults in midlife and inform prevention and intervention efforts.”

Science writer, Psychology Department


ASU mourns loss of Nobel-winning economist Edward Prescott

November 7, 2022

Edward C. Prescott, Regents Professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, died on Nov. 6, at age 81.

Prescott was one of the most influential economists in the world. He was a Guggenheim Fellow, a fellow of the Econometric Society and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2002, he received the Nemmers Prize in Economics, and in 2004, he was awarded a Nobel Prize. Headshot of Edward Prescott Edward C. Prescott, Regents' Professor and W. P. Carey Chair in Economics. Download Full Image

As a professor and the W. P. Carey Chair in Economics, he was a beloved and respected member of the W. P. Carey School community for 20 years.

Prescott was born on Dec. 26, 1940, in Glens Falls, New York. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, advanced to Case Western Reserve University in Ohio for his master’s degree and completed his PhD in economics at Carnegie Mellon University in 1967.

Prescott joined ASU in 2003 after previously serving on the faculties of the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago and University of Minnesota. He also held appointments as a visiting professor at Northwestern University, New York University, University of California – Santa Barbara, La Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo in Mexico, Australian National University and the Norwegian School of Economics. Since 2009, he also served as the director of the Center for the Advanced Study in Economic Efficiency at the W. P. Carey School. Beyond academia, Prescott served as a senior advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis since 1981.

His research is foundational to the field — and our modern understanding — of macroeconomics. He and frequent co-author Finn Kydland were honored with the 2004 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for their contributions to dynamic macroeconomics: the time consistency of economic policy and the driving forces behind business cycles.” The two are considered the architects of real business-cycle (RBC) theory, which argues that a substantial part of business-cycle fluctuations is the result of an optimal response of the economy to policy changes that affect its productivity.

The theory has had remarkable successes when confronted with empirical data. It broadly replicates the essential features of the business cycle and plays a central role in modern dynamic macroeconomics. The impact of Prescott’s work is clear from the five honorary professorships and doctorates he was awarded during his life, as well as multiple fellowships and his election to the National Academy of Sciences.

"Professor Edward Prescott's passing is a huge loss for the W. P. Carey School of Business community,” said Ohad Kadan, dean of the W. P. Carey School. “His contributions to economics research were foundational, and his work transformed macroeconomic policy. His passion for economics has made a lasting impact on the field, and his tremendous presence and incisive insights will be greatly missed."

Prescott was known for sharing his tremendous knowledge with the W. P. Carey School community.

“Whether it was a grad student honored to meet a Nobel laureate or another distinguished professor wanting to dissect a new theory, Ed was always generous with his time and brilliant mind. We will miss him greatly,” said Alejandro Manelli, chair of the Department of Economics.

Emily Beach

Communications Manager, W. P. Carey School of Business

(602) 543-3296