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Sleep study keeps USC sociologist awake

Postdoctoral fellow Jennifer Ailshire explores the links between sleep and family interactions. (Photo/Robert Garcia)

The effects of neighborhood environments and social relationships on health and longevity fascinate Jennifer Ailshire. As a sociologist and social demographer at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, she is involved in several major studies analyzing these effects on human wellbeing across the life span.

Ailshire’s most recent publication, co-authored with Sarah A. Burgard of the University of Michigan and appearing in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, studies the under-examined links between sleep, one of the most essential life functions, and interactions with family, our most important social relationships.

In “Family Relationships and Troubled Sleep Among U.S. Adults: Examining the Influences of Contact Frequency and Relationship Quality,” Ailshire and Burgard found that demanding family relationships can negatively influence your sleep, which may have serious consequences for your health and wellbeing.

“We found that individuals with strained and demanding family relationships, especially those who had regular contact with family members, reported more frequent trouble sleeping,” Ailshire said. “This study is important because it suggests that families — whether or not they live with you — matter for sleep and that even though sleep is a very individualistic activity, it is embedded in a larger social context.”

The duo’s findings have far-ranging repercussions for clinicians and health care providers, whom they hope will use this data to help patients look at their issues holistically in terms of the stress brought on by their social and family relationships.

Ailshire’s focus on how complex psychosocial webs, layered relationships and physical environments influence health led her to successfully apply for the prestigious National Institute on Aging (NIA) K99/R00 grant. While the majority of the awards go to biomedical researchers, Ailshire became only the second awardee ever in the NIA’s Division of Behavioral and Social Science Research.

“The K99/R00 is an extremely competitive grant that identifies exceptionally promising postdoctoral fellows and supports them during their transition to independence,” said Pinchas Cohen, dean of USC Davis. “I am delighted that Jennifer has been selected to receive one, and we are all proud to have her do her work in the USC Davis School.”

Under the terms of the award, Ailshire’s proposed research will study how neighborhood environments influence health and functioning among its residents, with a special focus on older residents. To aid her research, Ailshire will complete additional training in the workings of the cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic, neuroendrocrine and immune systems. In light of all of her success, Ailshire credited USC for serving as an excellent, supportive environment for a young researcher.

“In addition to being evaluated based on the proposed science and my strengths as a research scientist, my proposal was also evaluated based on the institutional environment and my mentors, including Eileen Crimmins, Caleb Finch and Margaret Gatz,” Ailshire said. “I believe that being at the USC Davis School and the Andrus Center was a major contributing factor in getting this award.”

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