Test from 1960 in New Mexico offers opportunity to study seniors’ memory

October 8, 2018

Jim Baca doesn’t want to lie about his memory.

“Of course I forget stuff,” said the former Albuquerque mayor and state land commissioner. “I wander into the pantry and say, ‘What the hell am I in here for?’ ”

Thus, Baca, 73, was glad to be a participant in a long-term aging study designed to tell whether teens’ cognitive and verbal skills — or lack of them — are a predictor of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

The project, using data first collected in 1960, will culminate with a report next year.

Baca was one of nearly 1,600 New Mexico high schoolers, and about 440,000 teens nationwide, to take part in an initial survey in 1960 for the Project Talent study. While many of the New Mexico participants — including Baca, a sophomore at St. Pius X High School — were from Albuquerque, some of them attended remote schools, such as the old Ojo Caliente High School in Northern New Mexico.

The test included multiple-choice academic questions and asked students about their personality characteristics, health and home lives.

“It painted a picture at a point in time,” Baca said. “I can’t really say that it made a big impression on me back then.”

He, like his 75-year-old sister Carlota Baca, can barely recall taking the test — not because they are experiencing memory problems, but because the Project Talent exam was one of a slew of assessments that they engaged in during the spring of 1960.

“It kind of blended in with the other achievement tests we took,” said Carlota Baca, who now lives in Santa Fe. “But I remember there were a lot of household kind of questions.”

The original questionnaire, created by John C. Flanagan, then a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, asked students about their career dreams and future goals. There was also a heavy emphasis on exploring whether any of the students had a knack for science, engineering or aeronautics, since it was the era of Sputnik and the beginning of the space race to put a man on the moon.

Jump ahead to 2018: Nearly 60 years after the original study, researchers are going back to those kids from 1960, asking them questions that focus on the state of their health — particularly their mental skills.

Do they have trouble remembering appointments? How about operating tools or appliances? Do they repeat the same stories over and over? And has a doctor ever told them they may be suffering from a number of illnesses and diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s?

There are other questions as well, including some about economic well-being, career choices and education levels attained. The results, which should be ready for publication by November 2019, ideally will tell whether teens who engage in mentally challenging activities like reading or doing puzzles have a better chance of maintaining their brain health into their later years, said Susan Lapham, vice president of the American Institutes of Research, which is conducting the 2018 study.

“From a big picture perspective, I would want the study to say, ‘Here are five things you need to do throughout your life to keep your brain healthy,’ ” Lapham said.

Several New Mexicans who took part in the original and current study said they had no idea the original information would be used to test their mental capacity some 60 years later.

“We kind of got pigeonholed into the new study as a result of the fact that we took part in such an in-depth study to begin with,” said Edgewood resident Paul Donovan, who graduated from high school in 1962. “We took the [original] test with pencil and paper. We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have adding machines, we didn’t have calculators — everything was done long-hand. Most of the questions were multiple choice.”

Carlota Baca agrees. “I just thought it was another little test with puzzles and questions,” she said. “We were not told that we would be traced for the rest of our lives.”

Actually, the original intent was to track the students’ progress at five-year intervals for at least 20 years, Lapham said, and though Flanagan never specifically mentioned looking into dementia as a result, he knew the value of examining how the 1960 data factored into the students’ health, careers and personal lives later on.

Lapham said some 1960 participants were contacted at least three times after graduating from high school, but things got “a little wonky” and the follow-up effort eventually sputtered out. Complications ensued when the original hard copies of the 1960 tests could not be located.

“Believe me, I looked for them for three years straight,” Lapham said. “I was sure we would find them. They were kept for about 18 years and then they started to disintegrate and rodents got into them, and so they were dumped in the Palo Alto dump in California.”

Thankfully, the test results were stored on now-obsolete nine-track tapes, and researchers had that data transferred to digital video.

“That gave us a starting point — the 1978 contact information that had been collected at the time,” Lapham said.

In 2009, about the time that 50th high school reunions were taking place, researchers interested in the project attended those galas to contact the original test takers — though at least a quarter of the participants had died.

Lapham said her team attended over 700 of those reunions.

She said researchers then pared down the 2018 study to 22,500 participants for a number of reasons, including to focus on a more balanced demographic overview of the test-takers today.

On the surface, the 1960 Project Talent data served as its own standards-based assessment of students in both public and private high schools. In early 1962, when Flanagan released preliminary results of that 1960 initiative, he reported the average 12th-grader could correctly spell 92.5 percent of the 5,000 most frequently used words in the English language and that the vast majority understood the work of author Louisa May Alcott’s books better than most other “classic” literary works.

It was a generation about to mature in a tumultuous decade of change, conflict and war, Jim Baca said.

“We went through the Cold War, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and political upheaval and change,” he said. “So it will be interesting to see now how we all coped with it. Because it was something to be coped with. I’m really anxious to see the results of this study when they get it compiled. I’d like to know how my peers are doing memory-wise.”

For Carlota Baca, who kept her body fit with ballet lessons and physical exercises, and her mind busy with years of college education — not to mention careers in academics, administration and activism — the new study reassures her that her brain is still “pretty sharp.”

It’s the other stuff that gets old.

“So, in what way, am I deteriorating?” she asked. “Well, I’ve had two hip replacements. That’s what ballet class and gymnastics do to you.”

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