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Individual Behavioral Processes Branch

This Branch develops and supports research programs with a broad scientific scope on psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal processes of relevance to aging. This includes research on mechanisms of behavior change and behavioral interventions, cognitive and emotional functioning, behavior genetics and sociogenomics, technology and human factors, family and interpersonal relationships, and integrative biobehavioral research on the mechanistic pathways linking social and behavioral factors to health in mid-life and older age. There is a strong emphasis on life course research, including early life influences on later life outcomes, as well as research on behavioral and social processes in midlife that play a causal role in shaping trajectories of aging. Research to elucidate the psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal mechanisms that account for later life health inequalities is particularly encouraged, as is research that elucidates causal pathways underlying successful aging and resilience. The branch supports research that is highly interdisciplinary, linking methods and approaches from psychology with those of economics, anthropology, neuroscience, and genetics, including studies conducted in wild and captive animal models.

This Branch collaborates with the NIA Division of Neuroscience to encourage research at the intersection of behavior and neuroscience, notably in the areas of cognitive interventions, cognitive epidemiology, decision neuroscience, and affective neuroscience. Collaborations with the NIA Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology include the influence of childhood factors on aging outcomes, and research on pain, subjective well-being, and resilience in aging. Collaborations with the NIA Division of Aging Biology center on the extent to which an understanding of behavioral and social processes, including stress reactivity and stress resilience, can provide mechanistic insights into factors that drive biological aging.

Branch Chief:
Lisbeth Nielsen, Ph.D.

Program Officers:
Melissa Gerald, Ph.D.
Jonathan King, Ph.D.
Lisbeth Nielsen, Ph.D.
Lisa Onken, Ph.D.
Dana Plude, Ph.D.

Health Specialist:
Laura Major, MPH

Behavior Change and Behavioral Interventions

This Program supports research on the development of behavioral interventions to promote the health and well-being of individuals as they age. Behavioral intervention development is conceptualized as a multi-directional process, best accomplished when infused with a focus on psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal mechanisms of behavior change, with the goal of producing maximally potent and implementable interventions, and the NIH Stage Model is used as the conceptual framework for this process. Major topics include all necessary Stages of research for developing potent and ultimately scalable behavior change interventions while examining their mechanisms of behavior change for: (1) promoting healthy lifestyle practices; (2) preventing or delaying the onset of disease (3) improving emotional regulation and well-being; (4) minimizing and managing the stress and burdens of caregiving, e.g. caregiving for persons with Alzheimer’s Disease or related dementia; (5) decreasing social isolation and facilitating healthy social relationships; (6) facilitating medical self-management; (7) helping individuals cope with chronic illnesses and disabilities; and (8) helping individuals make informed end of life decisions).

Program Contacts:
Lisa Onken, Ph.D.

Behavioral Genetics of Aging

Genetic and genomic research on psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal processes is an integral part of many of the research areas in this branch. The behavioral genetics Program focuses on: (1) genetics and genomics of social behavior and social environments; (2) understanding genetic and genomic influences linking social, psychological, and behavioral processes with health and well-being over the life course; (3) understanding the social and environmental contexts in which genetic and genomic factors are expressed and influence social, psychological, and behavioral aspects of aging, including examinations of social influences on gene expression, and genetic influences on selection of environments. Approaches of interest include quantitative and molecular genetic analysis; epigenetic and gene expression studies; discordant twin designs, among others.

Program Contacts:
Jonathan King, Ph.D.

Cognitive Aging

This Program supports experimental, longitudinal, and translational research related to changes in cognitive functioning over the life course. Studies are encouraged that: (1) examine the influence of contexts (behavioral, social, cultural, and technological) on the cognitive functioning of aging persons; (2) investigate the effects of age­-related changes in cognition on activities of daily living, social relationships, and health status, and (3) develop strategies for improving everyday functioning through cognitive interventions. Major topics include higher order cognitive processes (such as executive function, problem­-solving, decision­-making, consumer behavior, driving, and health literacy), memory strategies, perceptual skills, and reading and speech comprehension. Research that takes a life course perspective on these topics is especially encouraged, as is work that explores the role of individual difference factors in cognitive functioning (e.g., motivation, self­-efficacy, beliefs about aging, sensory limitations, experience and expertise) and health disparities.

Program Contacts:
Jonathan King, Ph.D. (life-span studies of cognitive function and cognitive interventions)

Dana Plude, Ph.D. (experimental studies, human factors, driving)

Family and Interpersonal Relationships

This Program supports research focusing on the development and consequences of social interactions and interpersonal relationships across the lifespan and intergenerationally. Primary topics of interest include: (1) direct and indirect effects of static and dynamic behavioral, psychological, and social processes at the individual and dyadic level; (2) the protective, beneficial, and deleterious contribution of family members, intimate partners, and friends to health and well-being; (3) causal psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal mechanisms linking structural and functional and emergent properties of social ties, relationship status, and relationship quality to health and well-being, and the impact of social isolation and loneliness on aging outcomes; (4) the role and impact of close relationships in the context of shared decision making during key life transitions and informal caregiving; (5) the influence of close relationships and the social network on health behavior and compliance, health care decisions, and care planning; (6) the causes and consequences of elder mistreatment; and (7) social and structural influences on the experiences and health of sexual and gender minority individuals. Studies are encouraged to take a lifespan perspective and to pursue mechanistically-focused studies with animal models, where appropriate.

Program Contacts:
Melissa Gerald, Ph.D.

Psychological Development and Integrative Science

This Program supports integrative approaches to understanding psychological aging, with a focus on biobehavioral and biosocial mechanisms or process that contribute to optimal aging outcomes. Topics include personality and non-cognitive skills, emotional function, subjective well-being, stress processes, mechanisms of behavior change, decision-making, and the impact – and potential reversibility – of early life adversity on aging outcomes. Research combining multiple levels of analysis and examining reciprocal interactions among these levels holds promise for delineating the basic mechanisms governing these behaviors and processes. Examples include (1) research on the neurobiological and physiological pathways through which psychosocial stress impacts behavior and physical or psychological health, (2) social, affective, and decision neuroscience studies of socioemotional influences on behavioral and functional aging. Behavioral phenotypes (e.g. personality, self-regulation, affect) and social/interpersonal relationships are investigated as causal variables and as mediators or moderators of the relation between behavioral and social factors and aging-relevant outcomes. Research that takes a life course perspective on these topics is especially encouraged.

Program Contacts:
Lisbeth Nielsen, Ph.D.