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Neuropsychologist studies impact of lifestyle on healthy aging

by Marcia Roth Tucci - February 6, 2006

Forgetful, confused, unable to remember where the keys are: these stereotypes of the elderly presume that as people get older their minds will fail and their cognitive abilities decline.

Katarina Lukatela, a clinical neuropsychologist who recently joined the faculty at the Greater Hartford Campus, is researching the cognitive abilities of healthy seniors to better understand the link between lifestyle and mental cognitive health as people age.

“This is such hopeful research,” Lukatela says. “People are living longer and having more active lives. Active seniors are interested in participating in this research.”

Seniors from the West Hartford Senior Center and the Elmwood Senior Center have volunteered to participate in the study. Lukatela and her graduate students conduct one-on-one interviews and comprehensive neuropsychological testing of both very active and less active seniors.

By obtaining measurements on memory, language, problem-solving, and other brain functions, and then coupling them with lifestyle habits, the research is unfolding a picture of cognitive health in aging. In return for their involvement, the participants receive a comprehensive evaluation of their cognitive abilities.

“Since the aging population is getting larger, there is a national focus on this kind of information,” Lukatela says. “People want to know what they can do — in terms of exercises or lifestyle choices, for example — that may help them age in a healthy way.

Katarina Lukatela

Katarina Lukatela

“We used to assume that dementia and memory loss necessarily occur in old age, but now we know that this is not so,” she adds.

“Until recently, research was mainly focused on age-related illnesses and cognitive defects. We need to learn more about what constitutes healthy aging.”

Lukatela conducts her research from the newly established Healthy Aging Research Center located in the Psychological Laboratories at the Greater Hartford Campus.

The center’s interview and research space has a two-way mirror that helps her train graduate students, as well as providing research opportunities for undergraduates.

Currently supported by a grant from the Research Foundation, Lukatela is applying for federal funding.

She hopes to broaden her work into a long-term study that would follow seniors over several years to determine how lifestyle affects cognitive function.

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