Associate professor recognized for research on cognitive speed as we age

Bielak sitting at her office desk
Allison Bielak

In honor of her outstanding research in her early career, Allison Bielak, associate professor in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies, has been awarded the Margret M. and Paul B. Baltes Foundation Award in Behavioral and Social Gerontology by the Gerontological Society of America. Her groundbreaking research on intraindividual variability (IIV) in cognitive speed and activity engagement has broadened our knowledge of cognition as we age, and she has inspired further research into some of our least investigated questions.

“The overall goal of my research is to help older adults figure out how to age better,” explained Bielak. “I want to give people a sense of control over their lives and their health.”

 Measuring cognitive speed

When measuring cognition, there are a few common tests that are used. Traditional cognition tests would require individuals to recall a list of words or find the pattern in a series of letters. However, after working on several studies that investigated how cognition and reaction time differ between individuals in their 20s, 40s, and 60s, Bielak dedicated her time to investigating a long-standing interest in a different method of cognition speed testing.

Bielak looks at documents during a meeting
Bielak in a lab meeting with research assistants.

“IIV is improving our understanding of brain health,” Bielak explained.

IIV still uses reaction time, but focuses on fluctuations across multiple trials in an individual’s speed of response after a cue, such as pressing a button after seeing a dot on a computer screen. IIV has been shown to be a more sensitive measure of predicting cognitive decline than traditional cognitive tasks.

Bielak has previously been awarded an NIH grant taking a second look at four interventions that had older adults take up different lifestyle activities to hopefully improve their cognitive performance. Not all of the interventions worked when focusing on the traditional cognitive tests, and her investigation of whether IIV can be a more sensitive indicator of cognitive improvement is still underway. It’s a difference between measuring something in inches and feet. IIV may be more finely tuned than other forms of cognitive testing.

Improving our brain health

Bielak is currently analyzing data from a study investigating how specific activities are related to cognition on a time scale of hours. Since much of the previous research has studied the effects of activities at a time scale of years, this is an incredibly important study that could help delineate the helpfulness of certain activities over others.

“By knowing which activities have the greatest impact on daily cognition, we have the opportunity to significantly improve the quality of life of healthy older adults and potentially even people with dementia,” said Bielak.

Additionally, Bielak is working on a literature review that is a direct response to her own work from nearly a decade ago. In that original review, Bielak challenged researchers to answer questions about how the activities we engage in are linked to cognitive ability that she felt were as of yet unanswered. She has since used those questions to drive her own research and hopes the field has more new frontiers to be investigated.

Bielak discusses ideas during a meeting
Bielak in a lab meeting with research assistants.

“I’m most proud of pushing the boundaries of our body of research in gerontology and trying to view things from a different angle,” said Bielak.

About the Margret M. and Paul B. Baltes Foundation Award

The Margret M. and Paul B. Baltes Foundation Award in Behavioral and Social Gerontology acknowledges outstanding early career contributions and can be given to a person from any discipline in the social sciences. This award is given by the Gerontological Society of America in conjunction with the Margaret M. and Paul B. Baltes Foundation.

Bielak received her award on Nov. 14 at the Gerontological Society of America Annual Scientific Meeting in Austin. As part of this award, Bielak will be presenting at the November 2020 GSA Annual Scientific Meeting in Philadelphia. Bielak describes the opportunity to give a talk to all of her colleagues on her research as a huge honor.

“This award is a wonderful acknowledgement of my accomplishments,” said Bielak.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.