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UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2011

ToreroNews 

Summer 2011by Trisha J. Ratledge

State of Mind

Nursing researcher gets up close and personal for answers

Ann Mayo’s recent research may have used a relatively small sampling, but it could lead to big answers.

Mayo, a professor in the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, teamed up with co-investigators Jorge Riquelme, executive director at Bayside Community Center, and Connie Curran, Bayside senior program director, to screen 104 ethnically diverse older adults in the Linda Vista, Calif., community for functional status, cognition and social support.

“If you think of those three things as a constellation, the primary question I’m looking at is: ‘Is functional status affected by one’s cognitive status and one’s social support?’” explains Mayo, who describes functional status as a seniors’ ability to manage finances, arrange transportation and prepare balanced meals. “Would older adults in the community have poorer functioning if their cognitive abilities were compromised? Do those with weak social support systems also function at a lower level? I want to know how all three are associated with each other.”

That the study’s volunteers come from diverse backgrounds — including Caucasian, Hispanic and Japanese subjects — is significant. Studies on cognition, or how people process information, are often conducted through large academic medical centers, which draw a narrower sampling of volunteers, typically highly educated Caucasian professionals. And while one in seven persons over age 70 will develop dementia affecting cognitive abilities, community screening for cognitive impairment is rare, especially in ethnically diverse communities. Screening can help identify underlying causes of cognitive impairment, prompt early referrals, and help families adapt environments to promote safety.

“This is very new knowledge in terms of the science of cognition,” says Mayo ’90 (MSN), ’98 (DNSc) of her current study in a multicultural community. “We’re getting a picture of what might be going on in a more diverse population.”

“We are always looking for new ways to learn about Alzheimer’s or dementia,” adds Connie Curran ’90 (BSN), ’95 (MSN), a former faculty member at the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science. “If you do your testing in one place, it does not give you everything you are probably looking for. This is a beginning.”

While data analysis will be completed in July 2011, preliminary findings indicate that factors such as age, education level and cognitive score together predict a high percentage of the functional status in the volunteers. What can the researchers do with this information? Two things, says Mayo.

“You reach a fork in the road at the end of a project like this and that is: ‘What can we give back to the community in terms of programming that would be helpful, and then what are the next steps in the research?’”

The co-investigators hope to use the study results to look at interventions that can be tested in additional populations, at Bayside and elsewhere, and also to develop support programs specifically for Bayside.

For instance, if lower functional abilities are connected to advanced age, lower educational levels and lower cognitive scores, Bayside can invite individuals falling within certain parameters to the community center for specific programming that can improve their decision-making and functional status, or provide a stronger support system, or both. It’s a way to identify the individuals most in need of intervention, provide targeted support and help them immediately benefit from the research.

Collaborations such as this research project between Bayside Community Center and the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science have benefits that go far beyond the two institutions.

“This is a really nice partnership,” Mayo says. “It could take years at a big, academic medical center to get the right people in for a research study like this. At Bayside, it took two and a half months. That was phenomenal.

“And for the researchers in cognition and decision-making — who are primarily at academic medical centers — this study advances the science in this field that is desperately needed.”