As Maine’s older adult population grows, research on aging is crucial

Maine’s population is the oldest in the nation, and 11 percent of Mainers live at or below the federal poverty level. These factors make Maine an ideal and critical location to study aging.

Rebecca MacAulay, assistant professor of psychology, studies tools and technology used to understand brain health in older adults in her Cognition Aging Resiliency Enhancement (CARE) lab.

Most aging research studies are done at large, urban medical centers, she said, where participants are more likely to have attained a higher education level and financial security. While this is convenient for researchers, it may not give an accurate picture of issues related to aging experienced by socioeconomically diverse and/or rural populations.

Maine’s rural health care providers need accurate tools for diagnosis

Her unique research project, “Maine-Aging Behavior Learning Enrichment (M-ABLE),” will include voluntary participants from rural and urban areas in Maine, with support from the Center on Aging and funds from the National Academy of Neuropsychology (NAN).

“We know a lot about the aging brain in college-educated, older adults,” said MacAulay. “We don’t have that same knowledge of relationships between memory and thinking from those with less-education backgrounds and how it relates to socioeconomic disparities effect on brain health.”

Rural populations tend to have less education and less financial stability, said MacAulay. And the rural nature of Maine creates challenges for health care. People in rural communities do not have easy access to providers and those providers need tools to accurately diagnose and monitor health issues.

A widely used method to measure memory and thinking in older adults for clinical research is the NIH Toolbox. Patients are tested on an electronic tablet with a series of “games” that measure their cognitive brain function.

Dr. MacAulay observes students Zoe Brown and Angelica Boeve testing the NIH toolbox
Dr. MacAulay observes students Zoe Brown and Angelica Boeve testing the NIH toolbox

MacAulay aims to find out whether this technology accurately measures attention, memory and thinking skills in older adults with low incomes and who tend to be less educated and less technologically savvy.

“It’s really important that we develop tools that can be accurate,” said MacAulay. “We need to be able to determine if someone may be experiencing some early signs of cognitive changes and if it’s time they check in with their doctor.”

Because test results from the NIH Toolbox do not take into account whether the person has a familiarity with technology, misdiagnosis is a concern. Those who are exposed less frequently to technology may be overwhelmed and perform poorly; which could cause discrepancies in their results.

Other factors also need to be taken into consideration, including test anxiety and medical conditions. MacAulay believes inadequate data from racially, culturally and socioeconomically diverse populations may result in false diagnoses of dementia or other cognitive impairments.

UMaine’s Center on Aging provides vital support and connections

As an associate for the Center on Aging, MacAulay collects pilot data and recruits research volunteers. This allows everyday Mainers to connect with and support UMaine research – offering a way for citizens to participate in studies that directly impact them.

The Center on Aging is committed to bringing voices and perspectives of older adults into research endeavors by connecting community and research. The center recruits older participants and hosts assessment sessions at various accessible locations in the state.

Collaboratively, MacAulay’s lab and the Center on Aging provide convenient ways for older adults interesting in volunteering to participate in research. Adults 50 years and older can join the Maine Older Adult Research Registry to be connected with various UMaine projects.

MacAulay’s study seeks to collect data from at least 100 people. Researchers also will travel to designated locations and community residences to reach older less-mobile adults who may lack transportation.

Benefits of aging research extend to students

Students working in the CARE lab also benefit from this research collaboration. Through hands-on opportunities, undergraduate and graduate student researchers gain experience and perspective.

“It’s been really fun to watch students learn what it’s like to work in a lab with older adults,” said MacAulay. She says many students express the desire to continue to work with older adults once they graduate.

Zoe Brown, Dr. MacAulay, Angelica Boeve, and Amanda Laverdiere in the Cognition Aging Resiliency Enhancement (CARE) Lab
Zoe Brown, Dr. MacAulay, Angelica Boeve, and Amanda Laverdiere in the Cognition Aging Resiliency Enhancement (CARE) Lab

The project’s future looks bright

Ideally, findings from the study will improve existing computerized methods that measure cognition in aging adults.

It’s vital to modify how health care providers analyze technological readings from patients by evaluating their backgrounds and taking that into account when seeing low test scores.

As health care utilizes more technology, the data collected from this study could identify limitations of the current tools and help improve them.

MacAulay envisions the development of an application to monitor brain health being produced in collaboration with experts in technology at UMaine.

There is a critical need to have accurate measurements that capture accurate cognitive functioning in order to diagnose dementia or cognitive decline in this vulnerable population of aging adults.

“If we can improve on these measures and validate them in more diverse populations, as in Maine or rural areas with shortages of health care providers, there’s a tool there,” said MacAulay. “We just don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”

MacAulay’s research is funded by startup funds from the University of Maine and a National Academy of Neuropsychology (NAN) Clinical Trial Research Grant and supported by the Center on Aging.

More information and links to participate in the M-ABLE study are online, or call Dr. MacAulay at 207.581.2044

More information on the Maine Older Adult Research Registry is online.

Media Contact Christel Peters, 207.581.3571