Kent School alumni follow up to 1960s study to help find causes of dementia
KENT — Bill Barrett still remembers the two days he spent in the spring of 1960 answering a battery of questions at Kent School that focused on his personality, intelligence, interests and potential careers.
Considered the most comprehensive study of American high school students ever conducted, the tests were part of Project Talent and examined educational choices and careers until 1980. The study gathered information on a diverse group of about 400,000 students nationwide in the early 1960s, including 5,500 students from 10 high schools in Connecticut. Kent School had 238.
Soon, Barrett’s responses will again play a role in a new, historic study — this time to determine possible causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as part of the Project Talent Aging Study.
“I love it,” said Barrett, who graduated in 1963. “I think it’s really fascinating stuff to see what was going on years ago might be laying the groundwork for what happens later in life.”
Scientists at the American Institute for Research are following up with about 22,500 of those original participants, including 240 in Connecticut, to learn more about early life predictors of dementia with the hopes of creating guidelines on how to prevent it, said Susan Lapham, director of Project Talent.
“It’s the first study of this scale that we’ve done,” Lapham said. “It’s very unique and I think it can do a lot to prevent dementia.”
Dementia refers to a decline in memory or other cognitive skills severe enough to hinder a person’s everyday life. Alzheimer’s is the most common form, accounting for about 60 to 80 percent of the cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The new study group will be just as diverse as the initial project, including men and women from public and private schools, various races and economic backgrounds, as well as a mix of test scores from the first Project Talent.
Project Talent initially looked at how people developed their educational plan and then careers. Students followed up with questionnaires five, 10 and 15 years after the initial tests until the funding from the Department of Education ended in 1980. The creators always intended to have smaller specialized studies within the larger data set, but didn’t take on the aging approach until a decade ago at the suggestion of some of the original Project Talent researchers still at AIR.
A team of 20 spent four years visiting more than 700 high schools’ 50th reunions to garner interest and participants in the Alzheimer’s study, as well as hear memories about Project Talent, Lapham said.
Questionnaires were mailed out to participants in the aging study, asking about the individual and their family, work, military service, education, current health status and daily activities. It also asks for memories of 1960 and how the world today compares. Participants will do online and phone portions after the written responses come back at the end of July.
Researchers will use the responses and data to examine what makes people resilient to or why they develop dementia. For example, scientists can look at the scores of students who said they read a lot and see if that is a factor.
“Once we learn these factors, we can develop protections,” Lapham said, comparing it to what was done with heart disease years ago.
This is the second time Barrett has done a follow-up study to Project Talent. He and his brother participated in a 2014 study on twins and their development.
He said he didn’t appreciate the scale of the project when he took the first tests as a high school freshman, but now enjoys reading about the results and analysis of the follow-up research.
“It’s a fascinating subject and probably more meaningful because it includes yourself,” Barrett said. “It’s not just abstract.”
He also wanted to participate in this study because both of his parents had Alzheimer’s late in life.
Studies project that by 2050, the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease will more than triple, reaching 16 million, according to AIR.
Jan Jacobi, who also graduated from Kent School in 1963, remembered how seriously he took the first round of testing for Project Talent and jumped at the chance to participate again when he saw the post calling for volunteers on a blog with his classmates.
The first go-round suggested a career in education — a field he’s been in for 45 years now — and he hopes his second involvement will help find a cure.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to be a part of and it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to learn about adult development,” he said.
He said participating in the study again has made him more aware of choosing healthier habits.
Lapham encourages every participant to respond, even if they think the study doesn’t affect them because the possible causes and prevention methods might be determined after they’ve died.
“We ask them to think about future generations, their children and their grandchildren,” she said.