Ruth Robbins ’12 researches how to help the elderly improve their memory in spite of age
Many people simply assume that with old age comes a natural loss of memory. The truth, however, is more nuanced, and Ruth Robbins ’12 used her Lumen Prize money for undergraduate research and creative achievement to investigate how particular mental exercises can help older adults keep their memories longer in the march against age.
Robbins explored a method known as cognitive intervention with members of the Alamance County (N.C.) community.
A psychology major from Los Angeles, Robbins spent two years investigating the effect of cognitive intervention on memory loss in geriatric populations. Cognitive interventions challenge individuals with specific impairments, such as memory loss, to engage in activities that are difficult due that impairment. With help from her Lumen Prize mentor, assistant professor Amy Overman in the Department of Psychology, Robbins established the “Aging Academy,” a 10-week program that uses specialized forms of game-play to sharpen elderly adults’ working and long-term memory.
Robbins says that a lack of research in cognitive intervention for elderly populations, the present aging of baby boomers and, on a personal note, her relationship with her grandfather, made the decision to explore memory loss an easy one.
“I was around my grandparents all the time when I was a child, and we have such a strong relationship,” Robbins says. “And I thought that if I could do something to maintain good memory for people as they age, that would be awesome.”
With several classmates, Robbins met with elderly research participants each week to conduct games that involve recalling a series of playing cards. The games were based on recent findings from laboratory research, which suggest that specific training tasks can improve general cognitive abilities. Until now, no research has attempted to apply those methods to older adults in a community-based setting.
A major goal for her research is to leave a legacy, “sharing this knowledge that memory doesn’t have to decline, showing how to do that and what cognitive intervention means,” she says, adding that she hopes students will continue the work she has started with the academy and maintain the partnerships that she’s formed with community organizations.
For Robbins, the Lumen Prize has had a significant impact on her research and her future career goals. She hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and work with elderly populations in the future.