For those who have gained knowledge about their health, access to new medications, and first-hand experience of clinical trials, medical research is far more than a curiosity. Frank and Lynn are among those for whom clinical trials have been life changing; by participating in them, the couple has been both benefactor and beneficiary of medical research for many years. Frank, who has sarcoidosis (a condition in which clumps of inflammatory cells congregate throughout the body) joined a trial of the immunosuppressant drug Remicade a decade ago. While not effective for everyone, the treatment was successful in Frank’s case. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without participating in that,” he says.
This year, the pair had the opportunity to be co-participants in a stress-reduction study specially designed for long-term couples. Dr. Joan Monin, associate professor of public health (social and behavioral sciences) has spent years researching older couples’ relationships and health. Together with Ms. Anne Dutton, a stress reduction specialist at the Yale Stress Center, Dr. Ania Jastreboff, assistant professor of medicine and pediatric endocrinology, Dr. Peter Van Ness, senior research scientist in Geriatrics, and Dr. Ather Ali, who was assistant professor of pediatrics and general medicine before his passing in 2017, Dr. Monin conducted research on the intersection of couples’ health, relationships, and stress.
“I’ve always been interested in how close relationships influence peoples’ health -especially for older couples because older couples have learned so many things throughout their life,” Dr. Monin says. “There’s just a lot of rich information about how relationships can positively and negatively affect health, when you’ve been around for longer.” Frank and Lynn, who have been married for 44 years, were perfect candidates.
Dr. Monin identified an area in need of further research: prevention interventions for older adults. Wedding that need to her interest in couples, she designed a study to introduce stress-reduction techniques to older adult couples that was funded by the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center. Its goal was to address stress, a contributing factor to metabolic syndrome (which at least one of the couple members had to exhibit to be eligible). Metabolic syndrome (defined as having three of these symptoms: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high blood triglyceride, abdominal obesity, low HDL cholesterol) is often asymptomatic, but puts those who have it at risk for developing medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or stroke in the future.
“It’s important to try to target stress—because elevated stress can lead to serious physical health problems—and there hasn’t been that much research trying to prevent stress in older adults,” Dr. Monin says. Moreover, research suggests that stress reduction is an effective tool for easing metabolic syndrome. The collaborative study, mindfulness based stress reduction for older couples with metabolic syndrome, was born. For eight weeks, the participants (11 couples) learned and practiced mindfulness techniques (such as body scan meditation) and physical activities (like yoga and balance exercises). Six couples received the intervention during the study period, and 5 couples received the intervention after the study was completed. All participants completed interviews about their well-being and relationship quality and they had their blood drawn to examine biomarkers of metabolic syndrome.;
“This took us out of our usual routine, and gave us something to do together and share. So I think it brought us closer,” Lynn says. “The meditation also helped with our communication, which was an unexpected result.”
Both were pleasantly surprised to discover yoga was part of the program—and that it was doable.
“During the yoga class, I found out that kneeling wasn’t the monster that I was afraid of,” Frank says. He’d had a knee replacement, and was wary of overexerting the new joint. “It’s helped quite a bit, because I know I can do more now, and I have been doing more. I think yoga is setting me back on the path to better physical health.” Though the study has concluded, Frank and Lynn continue to practice the techniques they learned, increasing their activity and communication—and health. Lynn celebrates her improved balance; Frank has taken up gardening.
“It’s a learning experience to participate,” Lynn says. “I think there should be a willingness, because you’re going to benefit.” And the research? That’s going to benefit even more.
“Without research, and without people being involved in that research,” Frank says, “medicine isn’t going to get anywhere.”