Aug. 30-Sept. 12, 2002
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How does aging affect cognition?
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Years weaken signal of body’s master clock
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Tim Salthouse
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Tim Salthouse, U.Va. psychology professor

How does aging affect cognition?

By Fariss Samarrai

Betty and Gil Black hope to age gracefully.

They are in their mid- to late 70s and are, in fact, still graceful. They are healthy, they think well and live well, but they also find that they are sometimes forgetful, that tasks take longer to perform.

“If you start forgetting words, you start wondering if you’re on the verge of Alzheimer’s,” Betty said. “You start to wonder how you’re doing compared to other people in your age group.”

The Blacks are participating in a new U.Va. psychology department study to better understand how aging affects cognition. The study, which will include up to 250 participants of varying ages, is funded by a $1.27 million grant from the National Institute on Aging. More than 180 people between the ages of 18 and 94 have participated in the study, and investigators are looking for more participants.

The institute also has awarded nearly $1.5 million to the psychology department for a long-term project to conduct doctoral training for investigators in the field of adult development and aging and to support postdoctoral fellows in the field of age-related behavioral studies.

cognition study participants
photo by Jenny Gerow
Cognition study participant Frank McMullen (in glasses) completes a task on the computer while U.Va. student researcher Jason Chin, who's administering the test, times him.

“We are looking for patterns, the systems of change that affect people’s ability to remember, to reason, to see relationships as they age,” said Tim Salthouse, professor of psychology and primary investigator for the cognition study. “We know that as people age, our memory and alertness and attention span decrease, we also do not reason as well, or learn as quickly, and we do not retain as well what we learn. Tests show that we begin our decline in our 20s, and this decline continues throughout our lives as we age. This study is designed to help us understand why this decline occurs and what the consequences may be.”

Salthouse is most interested in how “executive processes” – the brain’s management system that, in effect, oversees all other task-performing functions – decline as people age.

Salthouse is one of the nation’s leading cognition researchers. He came to U.Va. two years ago to work closely with the psychology department’s strong cadre of aging researchers, particularly in the area of longitudinal data analysis and modeling. This strength, with the addition of Salthouse’s new investigative contribution, helped U.Va. win both grants. This summer, the quantitative psychology faculty in the department held a week-long workshop in longitudinal research methods for researchers in aging from across the nation. More workshops are planned.

“We are one of the leading departments in aging research methods,” said John Nesselroade, the Hugh Scott Hamilton Professor of Psychology and principal investigator for the training grant project. “NIA recognized that we have people here who can help other researchers develop effective methods of study in this important and complicated area of aging research.”

As the baby boom generation ages, more people have taken an interest in the effects of aging on their lives. Nesselroade and Salthouse said that more funding will be available to researchers in coming years for aging research, and U.Va. is poised to capitalize on these new research opportunities.

“Our question is, what is normal aging?” Salthouse said. “How does lifestyle affect our ability to compensate for aging deficits? We are trying to understand how the increased knowledge and experience people accumulate as they age can help compensate for natural cognitive declines.”

As an example, Vladimir Horowitz maintained his standing as a great pianist as he aged by practicing fewer pieces more often, Nesselroade said. “He would play the slow sections of a piece slightly slower, creating the impression that he was performing at a higher level on the faster sections. It was his way of using knowledge and experience to adapt to cognitive and physical declines.”

While psychologists have many methods for measuring cognitive abilities, it is more difficult to determine how these abilities vary day to day over time.

Salthouse’s study attempts to overcome this by testing many people over a great range of ages and by combining standard cognitive tests with a day-to-day test that measures a participant’s response time in conjunction with the person’s current emotional state.

One test includes the use of a Palm Pilot that can beep a participant randomly at any time, day or night, during a one-week period. The participant is expected to respond as quickly as possible to a short series of questions regarding mood and level of alertness at that moment, followed by a short test to measure response time for matching a series of numbers.

“We want to see how people fluctuate over a period of time based on factors such as stress — the daily hassles and uplifts that affect people,” Salthouse said. “The range of variability may be a predictor of cognitive outcomes over time as a person ages.”

Study participants also take a variety of other tests during their three two-hour sessions. Their spatial reasoning is tested, and they are asked to compare letters and patterns, to remember words and numbers and the details of stories. They are asked to mentally fold paper, to keep track of items, to do two or more tasks at once.

Their responses are graded, then the data are entered into a computer bank and compared with data from other participants of the same age range and other age ranges and with other studies. These study methodologies also will later be passed on to other researchers through Nesselroade’s training grant.

“We hope to eventually understand what underlies the cognitive variability that people experience as they age,” Salthouse said.

Betty and Gil Black, the study participants, hope the findings will help seniors today and in the future to age gracefully.

“People are living longer,” Betty said. “Maybe we can help others to maintain a good quality of life as they age.”

For information about participating in this study, call 243-3548.


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