Dr. Michael G. Perri, dean

Dr. Michael G. Perri, dean

Dean’s message

The comedian George Burns, who lived to age 100, once said: “By the time you’re 80 years old you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it.”

“Senior moments” aside, the idea that we may not be able to draw upon decades of wisdom in our golden years is a troubling prospect for many. According to a recent study from the University of South Carolina, more than 70 percent of adults are concerned about the possibility that their memory may worsen with age.

At the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, we are fortunate to have faculty members researching the issue of age-related cognitive decline from multiple angles that could benefit healthy older adults and those who have medical conditions that may affect memory.

Dr. Michael Marsiske and his colleagues recently reported extremely encouraging results from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly study, which demonstrated that participants who received even a modest amount of mental exercises continued to experience improvements in reasoning and speed of processing abilities a decade after the training. In addition, participants reported significantly less difficulty with daily living tasks. In this issue of PHHP News, Dr. Marsiske offers five tips for maintaining cognitive skills as we age that draw upon the understanding that physical, mental and cognitive health are closely linked.

Dr. Dawn Bowers and Dr. Marsiske direct the newly-launched UF Health Vitality Mind, located on the campus of The Village, a Gainesville retirement community. This novel research program explores ways of maximizing brain health in older adults and offers programs for residents of The Village and the local community. UF Health Vitality Mind uses a variety of approaches, including mindfulness meditation, computer training, exercise, video games, behavioral activation and neurostimulation. Programs are designed for older adults who have concerns about their cognitive abilities, or for people who are doing well and would just like a boost.

A research project led by Dr. Catherine Price seeks to gain a better understanding of dementia in patients with Parkinson’s disease. While Parkinson’s has mainly been thought of as a condition affecting mobility, rates of dementia among people with Parkinson’s disease are significantly higher than the general population. Dr. Price is using sophisticated brain imaging techniques to establish cognitive profiles to predict the type of cognitive impairment a person with Parkinson’s may develop, which could help clinicians tailor treatment plans to individuals.

Dr. Lori Altmann investigates the interactions between language, cognition and exercise in older adults. In a recent study Dr. Altmann and her colleagues, including Dr. Chris Hass of the College of Health and Human Performance, Dr. Bowers and Dr. Michael Okun of the College of Medicine, examined the effects of exercise on cognition and language in Parkinson’s disease. Participants were assigned to one of three groups: aerobic exercise, stretch and balance, and a no-contact control group. Those in the aerobic exercise group had significant improvements in verbal working memory, the ability to inhibit extraneous information, the ability to convey information, and sleep, compared to participants in the other two groups. Researchers believe the positive effect of exercise on cognition may be caused by increased oxygenation to the brain, as well as improvements in neural connectivity due to increased production of chemicals in the brain that encourage the formation of new synapses between neurons. In another study, Dr. Altmann and team found that the walking speed of a person with Parkinson’s disease predicted how fast he or she could respond to various types of cognitive tasks.

The population of Americans age 65 and older is expected to double within the next 25 years as baby boomers age and life spans continue to lengthen. Now more than ever, it’s essential that researchers, clinicians and public health policymakers focus on interventions that enhance healthy aging and make later life as productive and fulfilling as possible.

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