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Institute on Aging conducts Long-Term
Newswise — Annette Baehne, 89, has always
been curious about life — her own and life
in general. She reads histories and novels,
and searches the Internet for information
about anything that interests her. She
writes daily in her journal, and recently
read the Bible over six months.
But her memory is not what it used to be,
she admits. She has "lapses" – difficulty
recalling details, names, dates.
Even her daughters, now in their late 60s,
talk of their own minor problems in
And Baehne's husband, Carlyle, 91, is in the
early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Baehne is curious about the workings of her
mind, and her husband's, and that led them
to participate in a long-term University of
Virginia study on the effects of aging on
cognition – one's ability to think,
remember, learn, judge, to simply be aware.
"I want to understand our minds as we age,"
participation in this study, we can also
contribute to the larger understanding of
how people's mental abilities change over
Researchers with U.Va.'s Cognitive Aging
Laboratory are testing and tracking hundreds
of volunteer participants in their studies.
Participants range in age from the mid-20s
"By following individual people over time,
we will gain insight to changes in
cognition, and possibly discover ways to
alleviate or slow the rate of decline," says
Tim Salthouse, a U.Va. professor of
psychology and the lead investigator.
"We will also better understand the
processes of cognitive impairment, the
declines that may predict eventual
Alzheimer's disease or other dementias."
Using a battery of tests for memory,
reasoning and speed, Salthouse and his team
began their study in 2001 and many of their
participants, including the Baehnes, have
returned for continued testing. Salthouse
hopes to monitor changes over many more
years, perhaps even decades.
The investigators also are surveying the
participants' health and lifestyles to see
if certain characteristics, such as social
relationships, serve to moderate age-related
Various studies have indicated that
cognitive declines involving task speed may
occur as early as between age 20 and 30.
Further declines in speed, reasoning and
memory occur during the following decades.
By age 60, many people will have experienced
half of the age-related cognitive changes
that will occur during their lives. The
other half occurs more rapidly, usually
between the ages of 60 and 85.
But there is a great deal of variability
from person to person, and Salthouse points
out that most people will function at a
highly effective level well into their final
years, even when living a long life.
There also is some evidence that people who
pursue mentally stimulating activities could
possibly slow age-related cognitive decline.
Salthouse and his team use a variety of
tests to measure the cognitive function of
their participants. Memory tests, for
example, may include a brief story read to a
participant who will then try to recall
A reasoning test may include images of a
folded sheet of paper that has a hole
punched through. Participants try to
determine where the multiple holes will be
located when the paper is unfolded. Other
tests time the performance of tasks that
require mental concentration.
While such studies show a progressive
decline in average level of cognition as
people age, getting older has its
"We gain what often is called wisdom,"
Salthouse says. "People in their 60s and
beyond often have a more positive outlook
than people in their 20s and 30s. We get
better at regulating our emotions and at
emphasizing what we can do rather than our
deficiencies. We often become more content."
Certainly this is true of Annette Baehne.
During her husband's career in the
construction business, they moved several
times around the United States. Now they are
settled in Charlottesville with their
"I feel we've been blessed," she says. "I
greatly appreciate the time we have
To learn more about U.Va. research on aging,