Written by David Balota, PhD, MA, professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences and Neurology in Arts & Sciences
This blog post is provided as part of Careers in Aging Week, April 17-23, 2022, which brings greater awareness and visibility to the wide-ranging career opportunities in the field of aging.
For the past 37 years, I have been involved in aging research in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. This was not an area of research that I was focused on during graduate school.
I was trained as a cognitive psychologist at the University of South Carolina. My work focused on memory retrieval operations and the distinction between automatic processes and attention demanding processes. The only course I ever had in aging was taught by Professor Ernest Furchtgott (a true scholar), who was interested in psychopharmacology and aging. My life partner, Janet Duchek (also a faculty member in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences) took the course and ended up doing a dissertation under the direction of Professor Furchtgott. Jan was interested in how memory retrieval changed between young and older adults. Discussing Jan’s dissertation helped nurture my interest in aging.
Indeed, our discussions inspired us to write our first NIH grant which was funded, while we were on faculty at Iowa State University. Because of the relatively global changes in cognition in older adulthood, we assumed there were changes on some central processes (spreading activation) that were hypothesized to influence performance across many tasks. We were wrong.
Both Jan and I are from St. Louis, so when the position in the department became available, we decided to apply. There were many attractive aspects of the position, including outstanding scholars who were interested in the burgeoning field of cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging. Importantly, Dr. Leonard Berg was also beginning the important work distinguishing Alzheimer’s Disease from healthy aging. Jan took a position as research coordinator, working with Dr. Berg at the School of Medicine. The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences also had remarkable strength in aging, led by Professor Martha Storandt and Professor Jack Botwinick, both of whom also collaborated with Dr. Berg.
The vast majority of cognitive psychology is conducted on the convenience sample of University students, and hence on a very restricted age and demographics. This work has uncovered many important discoveries about cognition. However, the extent to which one can simply apply these models to healthy older adults and early-stage Alzheimer’s disease can be questioned, especially without taking into consideration many age-related correlated factors, such as general slowing of cognitive processes, degradation of sensory processes, potential differences in motivation of why younger and older adults participate in research, among many others. The hope is that this work will have translational impact into everyday performance such as driving, avoidance of falls, and afford better ways of distinguishing between healthy aging and age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Across the years, as I approached the older adult age group (which I’m now happily a member), I realized how fortunate I have been to have a career in aging. If we are fortunate, we will all be able to live our golden years, and working in a field related to gerontology affords us a better understanding of what lies ahead.
David Balota works on issues related to visual word recognition, semantic memory, priming on implicit memory tests, and attention systems that modulate performance within each of these domains. Balota investigates these phenomena within young adults, older adults, and individuals who have dementing illnesses such as senile dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.