Study Of African Americans Finds Clues To Successful Aging

November 07, 1997

University Park, Pa. --- A study of elderly African Americans has shown education levels and health status to be important intervening factors in the failing memory, declining language skills and other deteriorating cognitive processes often thought to be inevitable consequences of advancing age.

Dr. Keith E. Whitfield, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, is lead author of the study which is detailed in the October issue of the journal, Ethnicity and Disease.

"Aging is synonymous with cognitive decline in the public's mind and science's perspective has been one of decline in old age, too, " Whitfield said. "However, when we looked over several factors, education and health were the most important predictors of the status and course of cognitive functioning in older African Americans."

Whitfield notes, "In more than 30 years of research conducted on cognitive aging, few studies have focused specifically on cognitive aging among African Americans. Identifying risk factors for maintenance, decline or enhancement of cognitive functioning that are prevalent in African Americans contributes to our understanding of cognitive aging for all elderly."

The study was based on data derived from personal interviews with 224 successfully aging African Americans 70 to 80 years old living at three different sites. The participants, a subset of the larger MacArthur Successful Aging Study, were tracked over two years to identify risk factors for maintenance, decline or enhancement of cognitive functioning.

In their paper, the researchers write, "One of the most striking aspects of our findings is that decline in cognitive function is not an inevitable consequence of advancing age. Nearly half of the sample that we examined improved or maintained their level of cognitive performance over the two-year period."

Whitfield points out that the study participants were at the top of their age group in physical and cognitive functioning. By studying them, the researchers hoped to find out why these individuals were aging so successfully; what kinds of things influence successful aging; and what interventions might help keep other people living a good quality of life.

Among the researchers' findings were these points:The research was supported by the MacArthur Foundation Network on Successful Aging through a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Whitfield was a Minority Research Fellow at the University of North Caroline-Chapel Hill and Visiting Fellow at the Center for Developmental Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill when he completed the manuscript.

Co-authors of the paper include Dr. Teresa E. Seeman, Andrus Gerontology Center, University of Southern California; Dr. Toni P. Miles, former Penn State professor of biobehavioral health and now professor of family practice, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio; Dr. Marilyn S. Albert, Massachusetts General Hospital; Dr. Lisa F. Berkman, Department of Health & Social Behavior, Harvard School of Public Health; Dr. Dan G. Blazer, Duke University Medical Center; and Dr. John W. Rowe, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and The Mount Sinai Hospital.

EDITORS: Dr. Whitfield is at (814) 863-1840 or at Keith@wotan.hhdev.psu.edu by e-mail.

Penn State

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