23 Sep 2020
Jessica Turner’s grandmother inspired her pursuit of research which initially explored fall prevention for older adults. She is now working with CHeBA’s CogSCAN project which aims to determine the efficacy of using computerised testing to assess cognitive health.
How did you get into researching the ageing brain?
I studied Exercise Physiology at the University of New South Wales and first worked as an Exercise Physiologist in a retirement village and aged care facility, helping older adults who had a variety of health issues - including cognitive impairment. Following this chapter, I entered the research world as a Research Assistant focused on fall prevention for older adults; specifically using technology to deliver exercise interventions. Falls are a significant contributor to burden of disease in older adults, with one in three over the age of 65 years experiencing a fall each year. Falls can occur as a result of disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias which affect cognitive function.
People with dementia are four to five times more likely to fall than older adults who do not have cognitive impairment and are more likely to sustain a fracture as a result of a fall.
Most recently I have been working on a study investigating how brain training both on its own, as well as combined with balance training, may facilitate a reduced risk of falls for healthy older adults. It was a fairly natural progression that then brought me to a Study Coordinator role at CHeBA to work on a study aimed at evaluating the recently emerging computerised neuropsychological assessment devices in comparison to traditional assessments conducted by a trained neuropsychologist. I continue to work with the falls study on a one day a week basis.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
In my second year of university my grandma had a fall and broke her hip. Visiting her while she was undergoing rehabilitation was an eye-opening experience. I witnessed how many older adults were undergoing rehabilitation for similar issues.
It was this encounter that really drew me towards wanting to work with older adults at the completion of my degree. I have found this to be a highly rewarding experience in both my clinical and research experience.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
I try to exercise regularly and particularly enjoy bushwalking. Being outdoors and experiencing the natural world is what motivates me to exercise and stay fit. My husband and I are both keen bushwalkers and strive to explore somewhere most weekends. We also try to learn about and identify the native plants and birds that we see whilst bushwalking. This thirst for knowledge extends into most areas of our lives - we are constantly trying to learn more about the world around us. We enjoy board games and tend to play regularly with our friends which combines social interaction with strategic thinking and competition; both of which are positive for brain health. When I have time, I am always trying out different creative hobbies like knitting or photography. During the COVID-19 lockdown I finally finished a scarf I started knitting two years ago. I like to challenge myself by starting on complex patterns and then realise how much work it is to finish. Evidence indicates that this sort of cognitively challenging task is also highly protective against cognitive decline.
What are you currently researching?
I joined CHeBA this year as a Study Coordinator for the CogSCAN Project led by Dr Nicole Kochan, Group Leader of CHeBA’s Neuropsychology Group. We are evaluating the diagnostic efficacy of computerised neuropsychological assessments completed on iPads, in comparison to traditional pen-and-paper assessments conducted by a trained neuropsychologist. Our participants are older adults both with and without cognitive impairment and we are particularly interested in their experience of the computerised assessments to help determine the types of people these assessments might be useful for.
Why is your research important?
The research I am working on will be helpful to guide clinicians in the best ways to assess cognitive function in older adults. Computerised neuropsychological assessments have the potential to be cost effective, delivered on a large scale and to be delivered remotely.
If we can improve access to neuropsychological assessment for older adults, particularly those in remote areas, we can enable better diagnoses, earlier detection and better outcomes.
I have only been at CHeBA for a short time and most of this has been during lockdown and physical distancing as a result of the global pandemic. Despite the lack of much face to face interaction, everyone has certainly been very supportive. The team is extremely knowledgeable and inspiring and are helping me to develop my own skills. One of my favourite things about working in research is meeting our participants and getting to know them; an opportunity to connect with them and learn a bit about their lives and experiences when they meet with us is highly gratifying.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
Improving the quality of life for older adults is unquestionably my ultimate hope. Through the project I am currently working on, I hope we can improve diagnosis and early detection of cognitive impairment. This way we can help people to access the resources that they need to ensure they have the best quality of life as they age.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Jessica Turner found that having video calls with her family and friends, exploring the local bushland and discovering the local birdlife, as well as turning her lawn into a native garden supported her mental resilience and kept her feeling socially connected while physically isolated.
Jessica Turner is the Study Coordinator of CHeBA’s CogSCAN Project which aims to evaluate the efficacy of computerised cognitive assessment instruments in healthy older adults and in people with mild cognitive impairment and dementia. Jessica obtained a Bachelor of Science specialising in Health and Exercise Science from the University of New South Wales. Prior to working at CHeBA, Jessica was previously a Research Assistant with the Falls, Balance & Injury Prevention Centre at Neuroscience Research Australia.