Local researcher examines normal aging process

Dr. Ellen Binder


Until recently, a primary focus of Dr. Ellen Binder’s research has been on exercise interventions in frail elderly populations. Now, Binder, along with her Washington University co-investigator, Dr. Mark McDaniel, is studying healthy people – specifically, whether physical and mental exercises can help healthy older adults live better. The St. Louis Jewish Community Center (JCC) and the St. Louis Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) are both involved in the study. 

Read on – you may be eligible to take part.

Binder and McDaniel, a psychology professor at Washington University, are collaborating on a study that is part of a national research program titled “Interventions to Delay Cognitive Decline.” The study at Washington University is one of six being conducted around the country.

“In my medical practice I work with older adults in a variety of settings, including an outpatient consultation clinic, patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and at nursing homes,” says Binder, 54, “so I have a broad interest in the effects of exercise on physical and cognitive function.” Binder made time recently to talk about her latest research.

How is the study set up?

There are four groups. Individuals who are enrolled are randomly assigned to one group. Participants receive either a home-based exercise program, or a supervised aerobic exercise program that takes place at the J, both for six months. These programs are supervised by a J exercise trainer. During the last two months of the exercise program, they also receive either a health education program or a cognitive training program, both of which are conducted at the J. These programs are called interventions.

What is the primary goal of the study?

We are interested to see how much the interventions can improve normal cognitive processes in healthy older individuals. We are measuring some cognitive tasks and also how well people perform everyday functions – particularly more complex activities such as managing medications, cooking, organizing appointments and multi-tasking.

Didn’t I just read somewhere that humans really are not wired to multi-task?

Most of have the capacity to multi-task, but that probably changes as we age. Research studies have established that decline in cognitive function is associated with the normal aging process – some mild memory changes, some changes in the speed at which we process information – but these changes should not significantly affect everyday function. This differs from the processes that are associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Those declines are more severe and progressive.

How do we keep these normal changes from affecting function?

We learn to compensate for how they affect function. In this study, we are trying to develop better strategies to minimize normal declines and to improve the strategies for compensation.

In addition to the high level of interest in how the programs affect aging, what outcome do you hope for?

We want to develop a model for these programs that will be easy to implement in other community settings.

What results have you seen so far from the study?

We’ve just begun – we will not have any results for awhile.

How many people are taking part in St. Louis?

We have 20 people so far, and we are seeking to enroll 96. We just began enrolling individuals in March, and we will continue to enroll people through the end of 2011.

Where are you finding participants?

St. Louis NORC is assisting with recruitment, and we are also recruiting from areas outside the NORC. We are looking for a diverse population.

Can people volunteer to see if they qualify?

Of course. We are seeking men and women ages 55 to 75 years who are generally healthy and sedentary – not doing vigorous exercise at this time. People who are interested can see http://exact.psychology.wustl.edu or call Jennifer Fisher-Eastep at 314- 286-2716.

Dr. Ellen Binder

WORK: Associate professor of medicine in the division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Science at Washington University School of Medicine; medical director, Sunrise Assisted Living of Chesterfield.

HOME: Olivette

FAMILY: Two college-age children

HOBBIES: Running, takes part in 10ks and half marathons, biking, cooking.

CURRENT RESEARCH: A project funded by the National Institutes of Health examining how exercise and cognitive training may affect cognitive function and performance of everyday activities in healthy older adults.