HDFS Research

From Pendleton to Petersen chair: Suzanne Segerstrom returns to Oregon to co-direct OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research

An inside look at Suzanne’s journey and research at the intersection of psychology and aging

Portrait of Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, MPH
Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, MPH, comes to OSU from the University of Kentucky, where she has worked since 1997. She is internationally known for her work as a health psychologist and her research on aging. 

Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, MPH, officially began co-directing the Center for Healthy Aging Research this fall with Emily Ho, OSU Distinguished Professor of Nutrition. Suzanne joined the College of Health this year as the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair for Gerontology and Family Studies.   

What drew you to working at OSU? 

I grew up in Oregon! I attended grade school and junior high in Pendleton, followed by Lakeridge High School and Lewis & Clark College in Portland. I also was on the West Coast for graduate school at UCLA and my internship at Vancouver Hospital – UBC. 

So, when I learned that OSU was hiring for the Petersen Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies, I was excited to put my name in the hat and even more excited to get the job. It feels great to be at OSU, with the human development and family sciences program, and back in my home state. 

What has influenced your primary research interests? 

As an undergraduate, I learned about a study in which hospital patients who had a window in their room recovered better than those who did not. That’s when I got interested in health psychology and, eventually, in psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) — the interactions between the mind, nervous system and immune system. The aging immune system is fascinating because it is both affected by and affects psychological and cognitive health. 

When I was learning PNI, there was a lot of research into effects of stress on immunity, but I was interested in why some people and their immune systems were affected by stress and others, not so much. 

Over the years, I’ve seen that optimism, coping, self-regulation, conscientiousness, and repetitive thoughts such as worry or rumination can account for those differences, either protecting against the immune effects of stress or making them bigger. 

I’m also interested in how psychological functions and health are affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), both in the person with ALS and in the people who love them. Personality and coping could also play an important role in that situation. 

As you begin here at OSU, what has been your initial focus? 

One of my new interests is how personality might account for effects of neurological stress. We know that some people have lots of Alzheimer’s pathology in their brains but their thinking and memory are normal, and others have little pathology but their thinking and memory are poor.  

Seemingly, people who are low in neuroticism (prone to stress and negative emotional states) and high in conscientiousness (goal-directed, organized) might tolerate neurological stress better. 

I’m working on a grant application to study this question, and I plan to recruit some participants from the Center for Healthy Aging Research’s LIFE Registry. 

I hope that people who might be interested in this kind of research will sign up for the registry! 

We learned recently that you also have a bachelor’s degree in music. How has music been a part of your life? 

I started with a violin class in the Pendleton public schools at age 9. I’ve played solos, chamber music, and in orchestras almost all my life. I was thinking of a career in music, but what I really loved was playing string quartets, and I wasn’t good enough to be a professional. I hope to find some Corvallis people to play amateur chamber music with. 

The LIFE Registry is a human participant registry of Oregonians who are age 50 and older and who agree to be contacted about research opportunities. Learn more or call 541-737-5080.