[Research Internship] Studying the Oldest-Old

Hello to all the supporters and artists of ATAS Foundation!

This is Angie Park 🙂 

I wanted to share about the wonderful opportunity I had this past summer interning at The 90+ Study after reaching out to the co-principal investigator Dr. Claudia Kawas. 

What is the 90+ Study?

Did you know that the oldest old, or those aged 90 years and beyond, are the fastest growing age group in the United States? However, there is little known about the people who achieve this milestone. The 90+ Study is a research study under the UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND) to examine successful aging and dementia of the oldest-old, as promoting a better quality of life is a public health priority for this growing population. The goals of the Study is to discover what factors increase longevity, if dementia in the oldest-old is different from that in younger elderly, and how to prevent memory loss and disability in older adults.

How does it work?

The participants in the study are visited every six months by researchers who perform neurological and neuropsychological tests. Also, at the Clinic for Aging Research and Education (CARE) researchers obtain information about diet, activities, medical history, medications, and cognitive and physical tests to determine functionality. If participants are willing, then they can provide blood samples, have their brains imaged as an MRI and a PET scan, and donate their brain after death. Once participants have passed away, all of their information is compiled into a case study to determine the time period and level of deterioration. I was in charge of data entering visit exams and blood tests, data cleaning, requesting death certificates, and finding lost files and scanning them.

Has there been any research findings?

Since The 90+ Study was first initiated in 2003, major findings have been published in many scientific papers and journals. Some of the findings were that people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol or coffee lived longer than those who abstained, people who were overweight in their 70s lived longer than those who were normal or underweight, over 40% of people aged 90 and older suffer from dementia, and about half of people with dementia over age 90 do not have sufficient neuropathology in their brain to explain their cognitive loss. 

One of the many filing cabinets at the clinic with participant files.

My workspace where I entered and cleaned data.

What were my experiences?

I reached out to Dr. Claudia Kawas, with the UC Irvine Department of Neuroscience, about an internship at The 90+ Study at the UCI MIND Institute. She wrote back to my email within the day, lighting up my inbox like a Christmas tree and kicking off a summer of lab lessons.

In my first days at the clinic, I was mesmerized by the insight of the experienced researchers whose conversations sounded, at times, like a foreign language to me. As the youngest person there, I was intimidated by the intelligence of others and I silently struggled by myself for fear of asking disruptive questions. 

However, I soon realized that without reaching out, I would never learn the tactics and techniques necessary to excel as a researcher and contribute to the impact of the lab. When certain medical terminologies stumped me or I had trouble finding a participant exam file, the senior researchers were always there to help me.

Soon, I learned my way around the clinic and absorbed information about recruiting participants, organizing older participant folders, and conducting blood tests. I remember the surprised look on everyone’s face when I finished entering data for 20 different neuropsychological tests in an hour. My increasing proficiency at the clinic filled me with a sense of pride. 

During the ten weeks, my knowledge of neuroscience blossomed; I learned the differences between Lew body dementia and Alzheimer’s and I recognized evidence of hippocampal sclerosis. The biggest takeaways, though, were identifying when I should lean on others, practicing self-resolution, and understanding how to effectively build trust in a lab setting. I left every day feeling energized and excited, hoping that one day in the future, I can use my own research to assist patients and rookie interns. 

Thank you to The 90+ Study for the wonderful opportunity! 

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