The cognitive aging research program has been structured to focus both on theoretical and applied questions. For example, through the theoretical work, we have shown intact implicit perceptual learning, and intact perceptual and conceptual priming under divided attention conditions in the older adult population. In the more applied research, using daily checklists, we have documented that older adults endorse forgetting names and forgetting words on a greater number of days than younger adults, and these reported memory lapses increase with age. We have also shown that the word-finding difficulties reported by older adults are more evident in discourse situations as opposed to picture naming tasks. In developing effective cognitive enhancement techniques, we feel it is important to concentrate on the types of difficulties that older adults report as significant in their everyday lives. We have found that older adults use compensatory strategies (e.g., calendars) to help prevent many of the types of memory lapses that younger adults report experiencing more often than older adults in their everyday lives (i.e., forgetting appointments, directions, and personal dates). We have therefore investigated procedures for enhancing older adults’ memory for names, and we have recently demonstrated that providing environmental support during the retention interval (i.e., post-learning) was as effective in aiding older adults’ later memory for words as providing the support at learning. In addition to this cross-sectional research, this laboratory has 5- and 10-year follow-up data with a respectable sample of older adults for several experimental paradigms and for neuropsychological measures designed to assess changes in attentional skills, memory abilities, language functions, visuo-spatial skills, intellectual abilities, and executive functions. These studies are increasing our understanding of the types of processes that remain intact and those that decline with age.
We recently extended this cognitive aging work to include persons with very mild dementia and diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Given the limited effectiveness of drug therapies to date, we believe that the development of cognitive interventions that will delay functional disability and increase patient well-being are critically important. While memory impairment has been identified as one of the most important cognitive determinants of everyday functional limitations in persons with early-stage dementia, studies have primarily focused on memory for the content of previously learned information. However, multiple memory processes are needed to support autonomy in daily life activities. In persons suffering from early-stage dementia, there is a fundamental gap in the knowledge base concerning impairment in memory processes outside of episodic content memory, and in the relationship between specific types of memory deficits and everyday functional limitations. This laboratory is currently conducting a series of studies that is designed to both comprehensively characterize the memory deficits present in early-stage dementia, and to relate those deficits to everyday functional limitations. Healthy older adults, persons with very mild dementia, and AD patients are completing memory tasks designed to assess episodic memory for content as well as temporal order memory, source memory, and prospective memory. Functional capacity is being assessed with performance-based measures and with informant-based rating scales that assess basic (e.g., dressing) and complex (e.g., meal preparation) activities of daily living. This research is expected to enable subsequent intervention work aimed at extending functional autonomy in dementia patients by providing a theoretical foundation for the development of more targeted and adaptive early memory techniques. This laboratory is also studying other important issues in the early-stage dementia population, including time estimation abilities, reading comprehension and inference generation, and prospective and retrospective memory monitoring skills. In addition, we are currently experimenting with a memory notebook and smart environment technologies to help persons with dementia compensate in their daily lives for declining memory.