30 Jun 2020
The participants of CHeBA’s Sydney Centenarian Study have quite literally a century’s worth of knowledge and possibly the most diversified life experience of us all. Experiencing the impacts of World Wars, countless technological innovations and the unusual circumstances of a global pandemic. Their invaluable insights confirmed to Julia Riches that CHeBA was the place to be.
How did you get into researching the ageing brain?
I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Queensland and started working as a Research Assistant there, coincidently, on CHeBA’s Social Cognition Ageing Study with Professor Julie Henry. This was the first research position I had ever taken beyond my honours project which focused primarily on younger adults and was my first experience working with older adults. When I moved to Sydney in 2019, I was lucky enough to begin working on the Sydney Centenarian Study and now I also work with the CogSCAN team.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
During my undergraduate studies I was unsure about my future path, but after working in my first research role at UQ, I discovered I was interested in the area of ageing. Since starting at CHeBA I have really enjoyed working with older adults and it has made me realise this is the field I would love to stay in.
Meeting the CogSCAN and Sydney Centenarian Study participants is a highlight of my role - especially experiencing firsthand the extremely valuable contributions older adults can make to research. When I finally got to meet CHeBA’s study participants I knew this was where I wanted to stay.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
I like to read a lot and taught myself how to crochet through YouTube videos. I have been crocheting a lot in lockdown – I finally finished a project I have been working on for a long time. At this stage I have only completed blankets, but I have just purchased a pattern to make a jumper for my next project. I hope learning new things keeps my brain active.
What are you currently researching?
The Sydney Centenarian Study explores the environmental and genetic determinants of successful ageing, specifically in a group of extraordinary people that have reached the aged of 100. It is so interesting to meet the study participants and learn about their lives. The CogSCAN study is investigating computerised neuropsychological assessments. We are trying to understand the potential of computerised testing – is it suitable for older adults and can it improve the timely diagnosis of dementia or cognitive impairment?
Why is your research important?
I think that, unfortunately, the value of older adults is often underestimated in the community. However, the contributions this group can make to research is enormously significant. I think it is important to learn as much as we can from older Australians. The CogSCAN study is exceptionally important as technology is becoming an increasingly critical tool for monitoring and improving the health of older adults. However, the current information about computerised neuropsychological testing is still very limited.
With 200 Australians diagnosed with dementia every day, it is vital that we understand as much as possible about the potential of computerised testing.
The research carried out by the Sydney Centenarian Study is equally important. The more we understand about successful ageing and the health care requirements of this group, the better we can prepare for our future with an ageing population.
What do you love about working at CHeBA?
CHeBA is such a unique place to work. The Centre has a wealth of knowledge that goes back many years and I feel very lucky to be involved in such long running research. For me, the best thing about working here is meeting our participants. As part of my role in the Sydney Centenarian Study I have been given the opportunity to meet some incredible individuals who have lived very long and interesting lives. It is a privilege to be given the chance to learn from these very special members of our community. What stands out to me about our CogSCAN participants is their desire to help. So many individuals are happy to give their time to research if it helps others in the future. This desire comes across time and time again and I think it is something that’s very encouraging. It certainly makes me feel that the research I am working on is worthwhile and valuable.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
I am hopeful that the CogSCAN study will significantly impact the field of computerised neuropsychological testing. Traditional pen-and-paper assessments are time consuming and cost intensive to conduct and there is a lack of trained personnel and resources to meet the current demand.
Early diagnosis of cognitive impairment is critical for healthcare interventions and the CogSCAN study will greatly contribute to our understanding of computerised testing and whether it can improve timely diagnosis of dementia.
I hope that the work conducted by the Sydney Centenarian Study allows us to understand the needs of centenarians and plan more effectively for the future. Centenarians may experience a wide range of issues associated with ageing, like hearing and vision impairment. If we better understand the impacts of ageing and the health care needs of this group, I am hopeful that we can improve the quality of life for extraordinary individuals who live to such a remarkable age.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Julia found that staying in touch with family and friends via technology was a great way to feel connected during this difficult time. She greatly enjoyed a weekly Zoom meeting with her extended family where they completed the Sydney Morning Herald Quiz every Saturday (with varying levels of success).
Julia Riches is a Research Assistant working within both CHeBA’s CogSCAN study and Sydney Centenarian Study. She completed a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) at the University of Queensland while simultaneously working as a Research Assistant for the University on a joint project with CHeBA; the Social Cognition Ageing Study. Her research interests include successful cognitive ageing and social cognition in older adults. Julia feels that CHeBA’s study participants have a lot to give and she is continually fascinated by conversations she has with centenarians.