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$2.1M grant awarded to study social, environmental factors in cognitive decline

For Immediate Release Apr 26, 2023

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Approximately two in three Americans have developed some level of cognitive impairment by age 70. To combat this, Indiana University’s Brea Perry is identifying the social and environmental factors influencing cognition decline in older adults.

Brea Perry Brea PerryThe National Institutes of Health has granted $2.1 million to Perry, the Allen D. and Polly S. Grimshaw professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, and Adam Roth, assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, for their research on the disparities between rural and urban cognitive aging. Working with IU’s Siyun Peng, Perry and Roth will analyze social networks and activities to identify the underlying social mechanisms of the rural-urban cognitive gap.

The study has the potential to identify mechanisms underlying the relationship between social connectedness and Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. It will also look beyond pharmaceutical solutions, which are limited, and seeks to prevent impairment before irreversible damage to cognition is done.

“This project will provide important insight into characteristics of rural and urban communities that shape the nature and extent of social connectedness among residents, which in turn influences geographic cognitive health disparities,” Perry said. “Factors like access to community organizations and structured activities, availability of public spaces for socializing and population density may protect older adults from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.”

Perry is expanding on IU’s Person to Person Health Interview Study, part of the Precision Health Initiative and originally funded by the Precision Health Grand Challenge. It connects biology with social and physical environments, allowing researchers to differentiate the factors influencing health and health disparities in Indiana populations.

A subsample of older adult participants of the Person to Person Health Interview Study will complete follow-up ecological momentary assessments — a method that allows repeated, real-time assessments of people’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors in their natural environment — and cognitive measures to accompany the extensive social, economic, health and biological data already collected.

In prior NIH-funded research, Perry identified that the driving factor in maintaining healthy cognitive function in old age seems to be interacting in the context of large, diverse and loosely connected networks of friends, neighbors, co-workers and community ties — social bridging — which provides access to novel social stimuli that exercise the brain.

“There is plenty of research suggesting that people with diverse and expansive social lives cognitively outperform people with limited social lives,” Roth said. “We know that rates of cognitive impairment are higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Yet it is unknown how much of these geographic disparities operate through social mechanisms. Our project will leverage traditional survey-based questions as well as cutting-edge smartphone technology, which gathers in-the-moment assessments of the social activities, interactions and places in which older adults engage.”

Once the social interactions and activities of the participants in rural and urban areas are defined, Perry and Roth will begin analyzing how they contribute to aging-related cognitive impairments across geographic locations. 

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