July 31, 2014
What happens when the memory loss associated with aging prevents someone from fully comprehending the words they read? For many with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders (ADRD), they close the book, newspaper, or magazine, losing an important means of connecting with the outside world.
Over the past year, two University of New England researchers and a team of students have studied elderly subjects to better understand the effects of aging and memory decline on reading comprehension. Ultimately, they hope to use their findings to identify new approaches that will allow individuals with ADRD to enjoy meaningful reading longer into their lives.
Jennifer Stiegler-Balfour, Ph.D., an assistant professor in UNE’s Department of Psychology, is leading the study, which also involves Professor Regula H. Robnett, Ph.D., from UNE’s Department of Occupational Therapy. Robnett has helped recruit research subjects from several assisted living facilities in the Portland, Maine area.
An expert on the memory processes underlying reading comprehension, Stiegler-Balfour previously focused on college-age individuals. She turned her focus to older individuals in the hope of pinpointing factors that influence a decline in reading comprehension as a person ages.
“To date, a significant part of my research has focused on comprehension skills among students – a population whose skills are still maturing and evolving,” Stiegler-Balfour said. “But with a population confronting ADRD, you have something of an opposite—individuals struggling to retain long-established comprehension levels. So the opportunity to explore these factors and consider ways in which we might be able to ease that transition was quite appealing.”
The data collection phase of the study began in February 2014 and is expected to incorporate data from about 60 participants. To date, the age of participants has varied from 65-94 with an average age of 76. During each session, Stiegler-Balfour’s team administers a reading comprehension task via computer in conjunction with the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) test to determine if the participant has experienced any cognitive decline. Correlating the outcomes from the reading task and MoCA scores will allow them to make inferences about which cognitive factors have the greatest impact on the ability to comprehend text effectively.
Based on data collected thus far, individuals with lower scores on the MoCA tend not to be sensitive to subtle nuances of written text such as detecting small inconsistencies. Further analyses are needed to determine which sub-scale of the MoCA (e.g., attention, visuospatial/ executive function, language) is most associated with the decline in understanding written words.
Named one of the "Best Universities" in the North in the 2014 edition of U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" ranking, the University of New England is a leader in health sciences education, biomedical research, and the liberal arts.