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Understanding the aging mind: Center for Healthy Minds a key resource

The Center for Healthy Minds leads the way in research aimed at understanding cognitive aging and improving the quality of life.

Published on July 15, 2006

The “Our Research” page on the Center for Healthy Minds Web site features a vibrant silverhaired woman astride a motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket and a beaming smile. Below her are links to four of the Center's major study areas where visitors can click and learn about the research into cognition and aging that makes this facility distributed throughout the Beckman Institute a world leader in the field.

On the Web site's home page the phrase “aging brilliantly” is headlined, with a link below leading to practical tips for maintaining or even increasing cognitive health in older adulthood. The message of the Web pages is clear: research at the Center is serious and academic, but also geared toward the goal of helping older adults live a mentally healthy life. Center researchers want older adults to know what they've learned — that research points to positive mental health benefits from certain lifestyle strategies.

The Web site is one way to publicize the message. The Center has also played host to motivational speaker and author Mitch Albom, while its co-directors, Denise Park and Art Kramer, have been quoted on the aging mind in publications from The New York Times to USA Today. Park testified before the United States Senate's Special Committee on Aging in 2005 on why older adults may be more susceptible to fraud. While its researchers are already considered a go-to resource for expertise in the field, the Center for Healthy Minds is poised to make even more news over the next few years.

As the baby boomer generational bulge pushes age demographics upwards, the boomers are also pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an older person in the early part of the 21st Century. Medical care, exercise, diet, lifestyle choices, and other factors have people in the United States living longer and in better physical shape than preceding generations. But, as Park points out, the mind may not be keeping pace with the body.

“Our bodies are starting to outlive our minds, so we need to play catch-up,” Park said. “All of this work (at the Center), it's still in the discovery phase.”

That discovery phase is why the Center for Healthy Minds can play an important role in contributing to the science of the aging mind. Begun at the University of Georgia in 1993 under Park's direction with funding from the Roybal Center, the Center for Healthy Minds moved with her to the University of Michigan in 1998. Park came to the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign in 2002, where she is a member of the Cognitive Neuroscience group at Beckman.

Kramer said most of the funding for specific projects comes from separate grants, primarily from the National Institute on Aging. The Center's goal, Kramer said, is “to promote research in successful aging and the distribution of research results to the scientific community, as well as the general community of citizens.”

Park said the Center is there to spur new research and empower researchers who are relatively new to the field of cognitive aging.

“The Center is about innovating and about developing new ideas and test beds for some of these ideas and funding them, so if they are good ideas they can develop significant research programs,” Park added.

The Center serves as a focal point for projects involving cognitive aging and possible mediating factors such as fitness, skill acquisition, social engagement, and other interventions that seem to point the way to improved mental health for older adults.

Park said the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of the premier aging research institutions in the world, and the Center for Healthy Minds is a key part of that standing. The research done there is on the leading edge of cognitive aging studies, and the Beckman Institute offers an unparalleled array of technology support for its investigations. Researchers use magnetic resonance imaging machines from Beckman's Biomedical Imaging Center, as well as other imaging techniques developed by Beckman researchers. Park said imaging work on the brain and cognitive aging is in its infancy.

“There are only a few people who do this work,” she said. “Right now we're sort of mapping what processes are associated with what neural circuits, how can we change neural circuitry based on interventions, and things of that sort. The real issue is what can we do to slow down the process of cognitive aging so people die cognitively intact. It's better for everybody, it's better for the families, better for the person.”

That is why promoting intervention strategies are a prominent feature of the Center's mission. The Center's Web site lists seven recommendations for a healthy mind, with all seven linked to research papers that bolster the advice. Recommendations include advice traditionally given for general health, such as exercising and eating food rich in antioxidants. The list also includes recent research evidence that suggests older adults should maintain an active social life and do work that is challenging and complex toward maintaining cognitive health.

Kramer said there are plenty of studies indicating that intervention strategies like those recommended by the Center work to maintain or even improve cognition in the aging mind.

With respect to exercise training interventions, Kramer said that studies don't always find positive results. However, he said, in quantitative meta-analysis that summarize results across studies over the past several decades, exercise training has been found to both enhance cognition and to delay the onset of age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's dementia.

“The fitness literature is pretty clear that you get fairly broad effects on different aspects of cognition from fitness training, with fairly modest amounts of improvement in fitness,” Kramer said. “Nobody in the fitness training studies is running marathons, nobody is winning races. These are people who are walking further and longer, and maybe a little faster.

“So for a pretty modest investment, virtually no investment in money except for a pair of sneakers or shoes, you can actually find some pretty substantial benefits in cognition and brain health.”

Kramer, along with his frequent collaborator Professor Edward McAuley, leads the Active Aging Program at the Center, which studies possible cognitive benefits from fitness training such as aerobic exercise. They have completed two exercise trials and are now involved in a third thanks to a five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging. The third trial adds to information gained from MRI measures and neuropsychological measures by collecting blood samples from subjects.

“We are examining the influence of fitness training on substances like inflammatory cytocines, which are implicated in aging and obesity and poor fitness, and tend to be negatively related to thinking and cognition,” Kramer said. “This study is going to allow us to understand more fully from looking at different systems and different measures, the nature of (brain) plasticity as a function of exercise interventions in older adults.”

Park said more research is required to investigate intervention strategies such as doing mentally challenging tasks.

“It's really now clear what improves cognitive function,” Park said. “The exercise work seems pretty solid, so that's one thing that clearly makes a difference. I think it's probably a good thing to use your mind but I think some definitive studies need to be done, which we're trying to do.”

Park has studied many aspects of cognitive aging, with a focus on the applications of basic laboratory research. Promoting interventions like skill acquisition and social engagement as possible ways to mediate cognitive decline are a natural part of her work. The Viva project at the Center had older adults learn new skills like digital photography to gather data on that concept. Park said that while research doesn't yet show that training on one skill translates to better mental health, MRI data does show changes in the brain from skill acquisition.

“There's evidence, for example, that if you spend a couple of hours a day juggling you'll literally show changes in visual and motor areas and those changes persist,” Park said. “So the general idea is that different kinds of experiences create different kinds of wiring in the brain and if you give people enough experience in the lab, you can literally trace how their neural circuits react.

“We don't have enough resolution to see processes that small, like learning a fact, how that changes the brain,” she said. “But we can watch the processes in the brain while people are learning. If you give people a lot of practice on something you can watch how that changes the brain.”

Collaborators at the Center for Healthy Minds include kinesiologists and psychologists with a variety of interests. Elizabeth Stine-Morrow is an educational psychologist who created the Senior Odyssey of the Mind project, in which team problem-solving is studied as a possible path to cognitive health. More than 60 older adults make up the teams, which work together creatively to solve both short-term and long-term problems. The exercises test subjects' abilities like inductive reasoning, working memory, and collaborative problem-solving.

Dan Morrow is a professor at the U of I's Institute of Aviation who studies aging and communication, specifically focusing on older adults' performance of complex daily tasks. Morrow has looked at communication in the area of health care for older adults and at expertise in aging pilots, with an eye toward designing task environments that promote successful performance. His research has shown that older pilots who use domain-relevant external aids like a notepad for taking air traffic control instructions, show reduced cognitive decline for their task of expertise and perform as well as younger pilots.

In all, the Center for Healthy Minds has nearly a dozen faculty members currently affiliated with it. Park said Illinois stands out for this type of research.

“I would say we're certainly among the top three places in the country,” she said. “We have a really amazing confluence of people who study cognitive aging and particularly the cognitive neuroscience of aging. We have a lot of depth and cover a lot of ground here.”

Park also said having the resources offered by the Beckman Institute adds greatly to the Center's capabilities.

“I unquestionably have the best lab and best facilities I have ever had,” she said. “It's the most supportive place I've ever worked at in terms of resources and helping people get the job done. There's a great group of colleagues and we're all interested in related things.”

A large pool of older volunteer subjects makes the experiments possible. Many of those volunteers were treated to free admission to Albom's recent talk at the University of Illinois. Reaching out to those subjects and to older adults generally is a key goal of the Center. With a wealth of new research results and published papers, keeping up with the Center's output may pose a challenge in the future. But that just shows the Center for Healthy Minds a leader in the study of cognitive aging.

“Now that we have these imaging tools, we are acquiring knowledge so rapidly it's mind-boggling,” Park said. “Even eight years ago, nobody was imaging the brain in older adults. It wasn't available. It's just like a new frontier right now.”