Jeremy Hamm and Katherine Duggan, assistant professors of psychology at NDSU, have received a National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant (NIH R01) of $1.6 million over four years. The researchers will study how the level of control an individual believes they have in their life – their perceived control – impacts cognitive functioning and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias.
Given that the number of Americans affected by these types of dementias is predicted to triple over the next four decades, Hamm and Duggan’s research hopes to provide insight into what modifiable factors can be targeted to reduce the impact on society.
“Everyone is declining in cognitive ability as they age, but it’s occurring at different rates,” said Hamm. “Our goal is to better understand modifiable factors linked to that decline and then develop methods to slow it, especially for those who are at risk of declining the fastest.”
One promising psychological factor is the beliefs people hold about how much control they have over their exercise, sleep, health habits and life more generally. While others have studied how control beliefs may be linked to slower cognitive declines, Hamm and Duggan will look at it for the first time from a socioeconomic perspective.
They believe perceived control is highly important, especially in cases where an individual’s socioeconomic status can create added stressors and challenges that make it more difficult to maintain healthy habits and influence their lives more broadly. “Maintaining a sense of control may be particularly important in those cases,” said Hamm. “Our study will focus on how people from lower socioeconomic statuses could actually receive a greater benefit from an increased sense of control in their lives.”
If they can determine such a relationship, the researchers then hope to discover methods that can be developed to modify the amount of perceived control a person’s life.
Hamm and Duggan also will document the beliefs and behaviors that explain why perceived control is linked to better cognitive ability. They will focus on motivation, emotion and health behaviors such as physical activity and sleep that are likely to account for why perceived control helps to preserve cognitive ability in old age.
In order to identify the motivations, emotions and potential behavioral changes that may exist in middle-aged and older adults, Hamm and Duggan will conduct a study of 200 individuals from the Fargo-Moorhead area. “Participants will take part in a series of week-long studies that track their day-to-day feelings of control over their lives, their motivations, and their health behaviors,” said Duggan. “We’ll also use wearable activity monitors, which are worn like a digital watch and record details about all activity a person does, including how long and how intense the movement is.”
By pairing the survey data with the daily measurements, Duggan hopes to be able to effectively assess daily sleep and physical activity. “By looking for connections among control and health habits, our research will be an important step towards developing methods that will move people to healthier lifestyles,” she said.
NIH R01 grants support projects in areas representing the investigator's specific interest and competencies that relate to the mission of the NIH. Typically awarded to individuals in later stages of their research careers, earning one early is a noteworthy accomplishment by Hamm and Duggan.
“Congratulations to Dr. Hamm and Dr. Duggan for achieving this significant research milestone,” NDSU President David Cook said. “Their work will help create new understanding about dementia-related diseases, which will help lessen the negative impact on people everywhere. This is a great example of the type of research an R1 institution delivers.”
Hamm will serve as principal investigator on the study. Duggan; Jacqueline Mogle, assistant research professor at Pennsylvania State University; and Margie E. Lachman, professor of psychology and Brandeis University, will serve as co-principal investigators. The research program will also involve 16 undergraduate students during the four-year span and one graduate student and one postdoctoral researcher for each year of the study.
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