FEATURE — Winter 2007
   

 
Photo: ©Jin/Superstock, Collage: Donna Boyd

Understanding ‘a New Stage of Life’

Researchers in the Department of Psychology in Arts & Sciences delve into a broad spectrum of topics relevant to aging: from reasoning abilities to attention and focus, from family relationships to personality and emotions.

By Janni Simner

At the turn of the 20th century, the life span for the average U.S. citizen was less than 50 years. Over the past 100 years that number has increased dramatically; according to the Centers for Disease Control, today a typical American lives into his or her late-70s.

“We’ve got a completely new stage of life that we just didn’t have before,” says Martha Storandt, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences. “Aging is a challenge of the modern era.”

Faculty in the psychology department’s Aging and Development Program are meeting that challenge by looking at everything from how to maintain thinking and reasoning skills into old age to finding ways to better predict and respond to dementia and other diseases when they do occur.

They are building on a strong tradition of research: the Aging and Development Program was established in 1957, making it one of the first programs of its kind in the country.

In addition to conducting her own research in cognition and aging, Professor Martha Storandt (left), A.B. ’60, Ph.D. ’66, trains graduate students, such as doctoral candidate Ellen Skladzien, in the psychology department’s Aging and Development Program.

Maintaining Cognition
When it comes to thinking and reasoning, Storandt says, “We don’t need to decline with age.”

Storandt studies the cognitive changes that occur over our lifetimes, and she compares how these changes differ among healthy individuals and those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. By analyzing 30 years worth of data gathered by the University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in the School of Medicine, Storandt has found that for those who do not develop dementia, many thinking and reasoning abilities can remain stable into their 90s and even 100s.

This doesn’t mean that age doesn’t bring any changes; for one thing, our thought processes slow down with time. “If you need to do something rapidly, you’re not going to do as well the older you get,” Storandt says. But when she and her colleagues factored out both speed and the effects of diseases such as dementia and strokes, they found that seniors often perform as well as younger adults.

Personality Is Not Static
Do our personalities and emotions affect how we age? Two Washington University researchers have received federal grants to find out.

Thomas Oltmanns, the Edgar James Swift Professor of Arts & Sciences, received a National Institute of Mental Health grant to study how personality influences our ability to adjust to changes later in life.

For example, “Instead of saying in a vague way that lots of people have trouble with retirement,” Oltmanns says, it would be helpful if one day, “we could say that certain personality traits lend themselves to successful retirement, while those with other traits are more likely to struggle. Ideally, we could then provide some support for those who are going to have trouble.” The same might be true for other late-life issues as well, such as dealing with chronic health problems.

Personality is not static, Oltmanns says; it changes throughout our lives, and traits such as risk-taking and impulsivity tend to wane over time. Yet in middle age, our personalities have become as stable as they are likely to be. For this reason, Oltmanns’ study will begin with a group of participants ranging in age from 55 to 64, and then will follow those participants into old age. “We know the social environment has lots of changes in store for them in the next 10 to 15 years,” he explains.

Randy Larsen, the William R. Stuckenberg Professor of Human Values and Moral Development and chair of the Department of Psychology, received a National Institutes of Health grant to study how emotional responses change with age, especially “automatic” emotional responses to threatening situations.

“If someone is walking across campus and sees a snake in the grass,” Larsen explains, “she’ll see that threatening stimulus faster and have an emotional reaction to it more quickly than if she saw something that wasn’t threatening.” This speed advantage has already been well documented in young adults, but Larsen is finding that it remains as we age. While an undergraduate might react to a snake faster than a retiree in absolute terms, an older adult will still react to that snake faster than he or she will react to another, less threatening object.

This instinctive emotional reaction is valuable, Larsen says, because it draws our attention to threats and helps us respond to them. It is the reason that, say, drivers cut off in traffic will quickly direct their attention toward stopping their car, and away from any conversations they are having with other passengers.

“There’s a strong survival value to having faster reflexes for threatening things,” Larsen says. “I think that is why it stays with us through the life span.”

“We’d always assumed that memory and problem-solving abilities went down with age,” Storandt says. “But it looks as if they go down with disease.”

Storandt is looking at ways to help seniors make the most of these abilities. Some strategies are pretty straightforward, she says; she recommends that seniors make lists, set reminders, and allow additional thinking and planning time as needed. Other strategies may be more complicated: One of Storandt’s graduate students is looking at ways that the elderly can more effectively switch gears from one task to another, for instance.

Maintaining cognitive health is strongly affected by maintaining physical health. “A lot of the time we think we just need to keep our brains active,” Storandt says, “and keeping your brain active is good for you. But there’s evidence that maintaining a healthy lifestyle also affects cognition. Your brain is one of the organs of your body, and so you need to keep your body healthy.” Exercising more, eating better, and keeping conditions such as blood pressure and diabetes under control might not only add years to our lives; doing so might also help us to think and reason better during those years.

When not focused on her own research, Storandt trains the Aging and Development Program’s graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The program is highly selective, so the students accepted into it are all top-notch, Storandt says. She enjoys helping them find research specialties they can focus on and call their own. “It’s really fun to see students take off and build their careers. And it’s really rewarding when they then become mentors in turn.”

Storandt says she and her students still have a lot to learn about this new stage of life. “There are a lot of questions to look at, and for a researcher, that’s exciting.”

She finds working with aging adults exciting as well. “There are so many more opportunities for experiencing life now,” she says, “opportunities we just didn’t have in the past.”

Professor David Balota (left) and Associate Professor Jan Duchek (right) work with Ruth Shanker, a healthy older adult, who is engaged in a test to determine selective attention.

The Psychology of Attention
One thing that does diminish with time is our ability to pay attention. “At any point in time, we’re bombarded with all sorts of stimulation and information,” says David Balota, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences. “We need to sort through this information and choose what matters to perform even basic tasks.” As we age, this sorting and choosing becomes more difficult, which is why seniors have to work harder at things like tracking conversations in noisy restaurants, or processing multiple sources of information quickly enough to drive safely across town.

For Balota and collaborator Jan Duchek, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, how well we pay attention also may provide tools for detecting Alzheimer’s disease sooner.

In their lab, Balota and Duchek measure attention and focus in a variety of ways. In one experiment, they present study participants with a series of words, and ask them to name not the words themselves, but instead the colors the words are written in—a task that requires a fair amount of attention when, say, the word “blue” is written in red ink. In another experiment, Balota and Duchek look at how well participants shift their attention from one task to another by asking them to switch from, say, sorting vowels from consonants to sorting odd numbers from even ones.

Enhancing Mental Performance
Washington University researchers are exploring ways we can sharpen our memory and reasoning skills in later life.

Denise Head, assistant professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, is looking at ways that physical fitness can enhance mental performance. She is comparing seniors’ physical activity levels to how well they perform various cognitive tasks, as well as to the integrity of brain structures shown in scans of the seniors’ brains.

Head is also examining how the brains of aging adults with and without dementia look different, and she hopes to learn more about possible biological markers for Alzheimer’s disease.

Larry Jacoby, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, is studying the differences between old memories and new ones. New memories require control and conscious thought, while old ones rise to the surface automatically; for this reason, it is challenging to break old habits, such as smoking, and to establish new ones, such as sticking to a healthier diet.

Jacoby’s research suggests that aging takes a greater toll on controlled memories than on automatic ones—in other words, that it really is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. His work may one day help researchers develop techniques for rehabilitating memory when it does fail.

Jacoby’s research also shows that seniors are more likely than younger adults to be misled by false memory cues and thus to form memories of things that never actually occurred, something that makes them vulnerable to scam artists. Jacoby says that seniors may want to be especially careful to get all estimates, receipts, and other agreements in writing, rather than to rely on memory alone.

Psychology Professor Mark McDaniel’s research focuses on prospective memory, or the memory of intentions: the sort of memory that allows us to remember to show up at a doctor’s appointment, or call a friend, or pick up a loaf of bread on the way home from work. Prospective memory requires some ability to control one’s attention and focus, but even though attention declines with age, McDaniel’s research suggests that not all forms of prospective memory decline with it.

Seniors perform prospective memory tasks particularly well if they have cues to trigger their memories, McDaniel says. These cues can be deliberate—leaving a note by the front door might remind someone to visit the grocery store, for instance; or they can already exist in the environment—walking by a telephone might remind someone to make a phone call. We rely on prospective memory cues throughout our lives, and McDaniel’s research shows that we don’t lose the ability to use such cues as we age.

Seniors do struggle with prospective memory tasks in the presence of distractions, however. “We advise older adults to do it or lose it,” says McDaniel, who is the co-author of Memory Fitness: A Guide for Successful Aging. “As soon as you have an intention, get it done, because if you allow for even a short period of distraction and you’re an older adult, chances are you’re going to forget.” If acting immediately isn’t an option, McDaniel recommends creating memory cues instead.

Memory cues can help seniors access other sorts of memories as well. “If you’re trying to remember your vacation and you’re an older adult, look at your diary or your pictures,” McDaniel advises. “The memories are in there. It’s just a matter of trying to get them out.”

As we get older, tasks such as these take longer. However, healthy adults still perform them significantly faster than adults the same age in even the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Evidence is mounting, Balota and Duchek say, that this slowdown may in fact be measurable several years before Alzheimer’s currently can be diagnosed.

Another Alzheimer’s detection tool may lie in the ways personality changes. Balota and Duchek say that traits such as anxiety, anger, and hostility tend to increase among even new Alzheimer’s patients, while traits such as self-discipline, orderliness, and deliberateness tend to decline. They are investigating whether these changes might also be detectable before researchers can currently diagnose the disease—whether they might, in fact, make earlier diagnosis possible.

“Early diagnosis is critical,” Duchek says. Many treatments and interventions have more impact the sooner they begin, and early diagnosis also helps families and doctors to manage the disease more effectively.

Balota and Duchek do warn against assuming every last change in one’s own behavior is a sign of dementia, however. “People tend to assume that any little change in memory or attention—any little ‘slip’—indicates the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” Duchek says. Some cognitive changes are a normal part of healthy aging, though. These changes can begin as early as our 20s, and they continue throughout the life span. The difference is that in patients at risk for developing dementia, the changes may be greater.

Balota adds that, “There also are aspects of cognition that improve across the adult life span, such as vocabulary and general knowledge.”
Balota and Duchek, who both work with the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, say they enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of aging research. “One of the most exciting aspects of our work is collaborating with investigators in different areas of study—genetics, neuroimaging, biomarkers, pathology—in order to better understand Alzheimer’s disease,” Balota says.

Duchek adds: “We really admire and enjoy the dedication and enthusiasm of our older study participants. They’ve led interesting lives and have wonderful stories to tell. We’re always struck by how much we learn from them!”

Establishing Open Familial Communications
Brian Carpenter, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, is interested in how well aging parents and their adult children pay attention to one another. Children sometimes have to make difficult decisions with their parents later in life, yet Carpenter has discovered that most children have no better chance than a stranger of knowing what their parents really want.

In his Clinical Geropsychology Lab, Carpenter and his team of graduate students asked older adults their preferences regarding matters such as housing, hobbies, medical issues, and end-of-life care. They also asked children to guess what answers their parents gave. “We discovered that children don’t know much about their parents,” Carpenter says.

Brian Carpenter (left), associate professor of psychology, and doctoral students Emily Porensky (center) and Elizabeth Mulligan—all researchers in the Clinical Geropsychology Lab—prepare a problem-solving task for older families. Researchers videotape the exercise to learn more about how family members collaborate.

That’s on average, of course; within the larger study group, some specific children knew their parents quite well. “So our next question was, ‘Who are the kids who know a lot, and who are the kids who don’t know anything?’” Carpenter says. “Can we teach children to know their parents better?”

Carpenter began looking for common factors among the children who understood their parents well. He found that none of the usual stereotypes held: Daughters did not know their parents any better than sons; children who lived near their parents did not know them any better than those who lived far away. “The only thing that seemed to matter,” Carpenter says, “was the depth of the emotional connection between parents and children.” In other words, those who felt emotionally close to their parents also knew them better.

Carpenter has begun observing families in the lab, where he is asking them to solve problems and discuss hypothetical situations together. He hopes to better understand the ways in which parents and adult children interact, and eventually to develop educational materials and programs to help them make these interactions more effective, “so that families are not caught off guard when they suddenly have to get together and make difficult decisions.”

Carpenter adds: “I think the default for many children is to think, ‘What would I want?’ instead of thinking ‘What does she really want?’ or ‘What does he really want?’” Carpenter recommends that parents start talking to their adult children about their wishes early, before a crisis arises, and that they keep talking over time. “People’s preferences and ideas evolve and change,” he says. “You can’t know everything you need to know in one conversation.”

Carpenter also works with dementia patients; he is researching the question of how patients react when given a dementia diagnosis, and, consequently, how best to give them such news. Some physicians still avoid telling patients they have dementia, Carpenter explains, in much the way that doctors often withheld cancer diagnoses a couple decades ago, out of fear that patients would become suicidal or depressed if they knew their true medical status.

Yet in his work with patients at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Carpenter is finding this fear to be unfounded; it turns out there’s no real increase in depression or anxiety after a dementia diagnosis. In some cases, anxiety may even decrease. “The patients already know something is up, that their brains aren’t working the way they used to,” Carpenter says. “Now they have someone telling them they’re not going crazy, that there really is something going on, and there’s something they can do about it. That provides comfort for some people.”

Carpenter is also developing modified psychotherapy techniques for dementia patients, so that they can better cope with anxiety and depression when they do occur. Some of these techniques are as simple as providing a written summary of therapy sessions to patients with memory problems, or replacing one long therapy session with a couple of shorter ones for patients with limited attention spans.

Like Storandt, Balota, and Duchek, Carpenter enjoys working with older adults. “Often all the important stuff gets written off as having happened when we’re in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, but I think there are important ways that human beings can continue to grow and change,” he says. “Later life is rich with opportunities for personal growth and meaning.”

Janni Simner, A.B. ’89, is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.