23 Sep 2020
CHeBA’s Social Health And Reserve in the Dementia Patient Journey project (SHARED) is an international collaborative effort to identify the impact of social wellbeing on cognitive health. There is evidence to support that our social lives have a great impact on our capabilities across the lifespan. Research Assistant with SHARED, Ashley Stevens, hopes that through the study’s outcomes this notion receives the recognition it deserves.
How did you get into researching the ageing brain?
I found my way into research following the completion of my Honours degree in Psychology at Charles Sturt University. While I was still completing my Honours, I took on a role as a Research Assistant at 3DN, Department of Development Disability of Neuropsychiatry which, like CHeBA, is also in the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Sydney. Here I was responsible for participant management as well as data cleaning and analysis for the Australian Longitudinal Study of Adults with Autism. This was my first real experience working in research and my passion for it developed quickly, particularly as I advanced my skills in scientific method and analysing data.
I really like the concept of ‘truth seeking’ that exists in science and research and that capacity through data analysis to get to the root of an issue.
During 2019 I was seeking a change - which ultimately led me to starting my PhD in cognitive psychology looking at how we generate new and unusual ideas. This period of about six months gave me the opportunity to consolidate my thoughts for my PhD, as well as spend some time on my other passion, which is painting. During this phase I also taught painting to beginners at a local studio. Now, I am heavily immersed in my PhD while working for CHeBA with the SHARED project which looks at the impact of social interactions and how they may be protective against dementia.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
For me, it was really more a case of one thing led to another rather than a specific defining moment. I followed my interests and motivations. I have always been interested in cognition and cognitive psychology and it was a natural progression through studying psychology and pursuing honours that I was introduced to research. I also learnt over time that I really enjoy working with data to answer questions, so the combination of those two things drew me to my particular role at CHeBA.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
I love learning and I enjoy keeping my mind active. During this period of physical distancing I have completed a number of challenging jigsaw puzzles and have started learning Mandarin. With physical activity another protective factor for brain health, I also do yoga at home as much as possible and I regularly walk with our dog to maintain physical fitness.
What are you currently researching?
I am working on a project called the Social Health And Reserve in the Dementia – SHARED - patient journey. This research is an international collaboration and our group is part of a specific work package looking at the clinical phase of dementia. We are looking at how people progress from mild cognitive impairment through to dementia; in particular the impact of social health on that trajectory. In this context, social health refers to someone’s interactions, their social support systems and other similar variables. When looking at how these factors impact cognitive decline, we are specifically determining whether people who maintain their social health ultimately have the same degree of cognitive decline as someone who doesn’t, whether their cognitive health stays the same, or whether it actually improves.
Why is your research important?
Social factors affecting cognitive health need to be further addressed by the research community to devise evidence-based ways in which we can help reduce cognitive decline and dementia.
We are in a unique position where we have the ability to harmonise data from up to forty international studies, which allows us to delve into the issue of social health and how it impacts cognitive decline at a level that has never been done before.
In research this is extremely powerful as it allows for a very large sample size. Although we are predominantly looking at social health across the spectrum of socio-economic status, outcomes from this research may potentially lead us to also address the impact of cultural differences on social health. I think that our research will shine a light on important and under-researched area of cognition; our social lives, which has a great impact on our capabilities across the lifespan.
I love the culture at CHeBA; it is very flexible and encourages critical thinking and innovation which is highly motivating for me.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
The ultimate hope for our research would be to have a clearer picture of what different social variables actually mean for cognitive decline. This is particularly relevant for people who already have mild cognitive impairment. There is very little research that has been undertaken about how social health might be protective once you already have mild cognitive impairment. It would be extremely helpful to know exactly what impact having solid social networks, maintaining social health and/or maintaining social interactions has on our cognition as we age.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Ashley Stevens found that spending quality time with family she lives with, as well as video calling friends, supported her mental resilience and kept her feeling socially connected while physically isolated.
Ashley Stevens is a Research Assistant at CHeBA with the SHARED project and simultaneously completing her PhD in Psychology at UNSW Sydney. Her broader research interests include investigating the impact of social wellbeing on health in later life. Ashley obtained a Bachelor of Psychological Science from UNSW and a Bachelor of Psychology Honours from Charles Stuart University. Prior to working at CHeBA, Ashley was a Research Assistant at the Department of Developmental Disability Neuropsychiatry.