From the Dean
The Discovery Channel
I’m a gerontologist who studies the family and friend relationships of older adults. We teach students about heterogeneity—as people go through life, choosing diverse pathways and experiences, they become more differentiated from one another. Some people have large families and many friends, while others are socially isolated. Some people retire in their 50s; others work into their 80s. Health and wealth vary, interests diverge, personalities can be sunny or glum.
With all this complexity, we also teach our students about the dangers of assumptions, the importance of nuanced detective work, and the need for a range of investigative tools. We learned long ago that discovery for our students—and for ourselves—is rarely through just one channel.
Two of my colleagues in the Department of Human Development and Family Science—Karen Roberto and Tina Savla—and I study the challenges families face in helping loved ones manage memory loss. We knew from previous research that caregiving for someone with advanced memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s disease, is difficult and stressful. But at the early stage of forgetfulness, called mild cognitive impairment, the diagnosed person usually needs some guidance and assistance from care partners, not intensive caregiving. Still, we wondered about the effects of early memory loss on everyday life.
During interviews with spouses and adult children of people with mild cognitive impairment, we heard stories of frustration mixed with the instinct to be respectful. We saw that even early memory loss can be disruptive in many ways, which seemed to bother some care partners more than others. So we took our research a step further by asking care partners to collect saliva samples five times a day for a week. We analyzed those samples for cortisol, a hormone that responds to stress, and found that even when the care partners did not report high levels of worry or anxiety, their bodies were responding as if they were very stressed. This hidden information is important, because if daily cortisol patterns are disrupted for too long, the caregiver can become ill.
This research is just one of the many initiatives that faculty and students pursue across our college. Every day, we detect hidden information, uncover unexpected research findings, and solve challenging riddles, all for the benefit of humanity. We invite you to discover in this issue the many paths we take.
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences