On a typical afternoon inside Treasure of the Hills Senior Center in Cedar Park, members play bridge or mahjong. Some peruse bookshelves in the library or piece together a puzzle. At first glance the center does not look like a place to conduct scientific research, but for two University of Texas at Austin graduate students, it is exactly that.
Graduate students Sharon Noh and Athula Pudhiyidath are conducting behavioral tests on several Treasure of the Hills members as part of their research on memory in older adults. The researchers work at UT’s Preston Lab, which studies how people form memories and use them to make decisions. The lab has studied children and adults ages 18-35, but six months ago Noh and Pudhiyidath began spearheading research into older adults. The researchers aim to see how memory and reasoning change as people age.
“I think a common stereotype is that when you get older your memory falls flat, and your memory gets worse and worse over time,” Noh said. “While that’s true to some degree, there’s a lot of research that shows that older adults are just as good at remembering really important information.”
Pudhiyidath said the lab contacted several senior centers in and around Austin, but Treasure of the Hills was the most receptive and eager to participate. The senior center, which opened in 1990 and provides recreational activities for adults age 50 and older, has more than 300 members. Managing Director Sue Witovec said members were excited to participate.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Witovec said. “We’re happy to accommodate.”
Researchers first test participants for various cognitive abilities such as motor skills, working memory and impulsivity. The paper-based test has participants solve puzzles and memorize numbers and pictures. So far six Treasure of the Hills members have participated.
Participants’ results from this test are put into a database that the researchers can then use to conduct more specific experiments. For example, if the researchers want to compare people who are impulsive to those who are less impulsive, they can go the database and call back certain people who meet those requirements for an experiment. The experiments are computer-based games that assess different abilities.
“There’s no right way to do these tasks,” Noh said. “What we’re looking at are different strategies.”
Noh and Pudhiyidath plan to expand their research beyond Treasure of the Hills and are looking to find more adults between ages 60 and 90 in and around the Austin area willing to participate. Participants are compensated. People interested in participating may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Noh said she hopes the project ultimately helps target ways people can work to keep their memory systems intact.
“There’s a lot of research that has shown the more you continue to engage and learn things the more you’re able to delay onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. … ” Noh said. “Being able to more accurately pinpoint how memory works and how brain systems are working, we could ideally target interventions to try to preserve memory systems for longer.”