Recent Ph.D. graduate authors lead paper in Neuropsychology’s special issue on aging

By Jill Pease
Dr. Anna Yam
Dr. Anna Yam

For Anna Yam, a 2014 graduate of the clinical psychology Ph.D. program, it was a particularly long journey from article manuscript to publication, but her persistence paid off in a big way. Her article on a study of everyday cognitive abilities in older adults has been published as the lead paper in a special issue of a major journal.

Yam’s paper challenges the commonly-held belief that skills of everyday cognition, such as paying bills or reading a nutrition label, remain relatively stable in older adults. The findings appeared in an issue dedicated to cognitive aging research in Neuropsychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association, and were highlighted in the February issue of the association’s magazine.

“The general idea of the paper is that as your reasoning — your ability to be flexible in how you use information to accomplish things in real life — declines with age, so do some of the cognitive skills that you need for everyday activities,” said Yam, now a postdoctoral resident in the department of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. “Reasoning is really important.”

One example of the relationship between reasoning and everyday cognition can be seen in the common scenario of older adults receiving a new drug prescription or change to their medications, Yam says. If reasoning abilities have declined, they may struggle to incorporate the new information and not be able to manage the new medication routine.

Yam began the research during the first years of her graduate program. She examined data collected as part of the ACTIVE study, a 10-year study of the effects of mental training in older adults, conducted by her mentor Michael Marsiske, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of clinical and health psychology, and colleagues. Yam focused on the cognitive abilities over time of 700 ACTIVE study participants who were part of a no-treatment group.

She originally submitted a draft of her paper to another journal, and reviewers suggested extensive revisions and additional data analyses. With Marsiske’s assistance, she spent the next year learning advanced longitudinal data analysis techniques.

“The skills needed to publish this paper were really a testament to Anna’s work ethic and doggedness,” Marsiske said. “She had to learn almost every one of the techniques used in the paper, and we spent over a year on revisions, each week underscored by going back to the research literature, reading about new techniques, and trying to implement them in our data and software. That transcends this particular paper or its lead position in a special issue of a prominent journal.”

Yam says future work in this line of research should focus on measures of everyday cognition in the clinical setting to help detect problems that older adults who are cognitively compromised are experiencing in their everyday lives.

“I think this research will plant a seed and hopefully folks will continue the work,” she said.