A McCourt researcher has dedicated her career to aging research and a decades-old study, revealing a non-medical intervention that proves resilient against dementia.
In the early 1960s, a Wisconsin research team set out to learn how students that matriculated were performing and what might predict their future occupational success. With time, curiosities grew. What began as a survey to gauge college preparedness among high school seniors evolved into a longitudinal study on the profound experience of cognitive disease in later life.
“We’ve been tracking participants over their lifetime,” said McCourt Professor Pam Herd, who is now a principal investigator on the multi-phase project, which has been continuously supported by the National Institutes of Health since 1991.
While teaching at the McCourt School, Herd conducts research in partnership with Dr. Sanjay Asthana, founding director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and Dr. Michal Engelman, Principal Investigator of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. Once participants reached middle age, the research team’s questions turned to retirement and health, and now, 60 years after the original survey, their focus has shifted to cognitive health.
“Participants have reached their early 80s, a point in their lives when the onset and risk for dementia becomes quite high, and we have no current medical interventions to treat it in a meaningful way,” said Herd.
Education as an antidote
“One of the unique things about this project is that we have data from childhood through adulthood,” said Herd. “We’re able to better understand how things that occur early in peoples’ lives, like the quantity and quality of their education, may influence whether individuals stay cognitively healthy in later life.”
There are many factors that predict whether or not people will be diagnosed with a cognitive disease, including genetics. As a social scientist, Herd thinks it’s important to focus on the social factors that most strongly indicate risk of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
One of those factors is educational attainment, or the highest level of education that an individual has completed. “There are huge differences in risk of dementia across educational levels,” she said.
With a rigorous data set, Herd and her colleagues are unpacking the experiences in early life that shape an individual’s cognitive reserve — the things that seem to effectively prevent dementia. The same things that help build healthy brains through childhood, from nurturing parental relationships to high-quality schooling, may also influence brain health in later life.
A passion for aging research and the human experience
Throughout her career, Herd has been driven by a passion for aging research and public policies that directly address the health of and inequality among older Americans.
The types of support and long-term health and social outcomes for those with varying cognitive diseases are not that different. For Herd, the most important element is an individual’s experience in the world — and for those who receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, the human experience is largely the same.
When it comes to non-medical intervention, social scientists like Herd think that public policies, especially those that facilitate higher educational attainment, could help protect people from dementia in later life.
“There are a range of needed public policy interventions,” she said. “The impact on individual lives, and on the relationships between those living with a cognitive disease and their family members, would be enormous.”
“I hope that my colleagues and I can continue tracking participants, for whom I’ve grown to care about, effectively until they pass away,” said Herd. “This project has absorbed so much of my life, and I really value the way their participation has contributed to science.”
Dr. Pamela Herd is a professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on inequality and how it intersects with health, aging and policy. Herd has received grant awards for her work from the National Institutes of Health, National Institutes on Aging, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Ford Foundation and AARP.
*Robert Hauser and William Sewell preceded Dr. Herd as principal investigators for the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study.