Purdue Psychological Sciences researcher to explore daily mood, social engagement effects on potential Alzheimer’s patients

Susan South

Susan South

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Recognizing the signs of Alzheimer’s disease is crucial for families to prepare for treatments and care for older individuals. These signs include memory loss that affects daily life, changes in personality and poor judgement, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

People ages 60-70 are the most at-risk to show signs of Alzheimer’s. But what if these adults have differing experiences in social engagement? Does a generally upbeat mood keep Alzheimer’s at bay compared to a sour disposition? Are there subtle changes in cognition daily that are a warning sign for Alzheimer’s?

Susan South, professor in the Purdue University Department of Psychological Sciences, will launch a new study to see how mood, cognition and social engagement levels and experiences affect 50 Indiana residents in the age range of 60-70, who traditionally are at risk for mild cognitive impairment. Half of the individuals will identify as male and the other half female. The data culled from digital “daily diaries” over the span of a week will be compared.

“Those that have a mild cognitive impairment are often at a transitional state, for many individuals, before Alzheimer’s and related dementia,” South said. “Not everyone with mild cognitive impairment ends up getting Alzheimer’s, so you really want to target the folks most at risk.”

South recently received a $15,000 grant to fund the work from Purdue’s Women’s Global Health Institute and the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. South will be assisted by a team of graduate and undergraduate students starting in August.


South will recruit from the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and around Greater Lafayette. The study will start with a structured interview of each participant before daily check-ins and diary posts are needed. The prompts for check-ins and diary posts will be delivered three times a day via ExpiWell, a smartphone and tablet app developed by South’s colleague Louis Tay, the William C. Byham Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology.

“Have they had an interaction with someone that made them particularly happy or maybe particularly sad?” South stated. “Are there carryover effects of that mood?”

The daily diary will be completed by the participants and sent to South’s lab every day. Daily cognition tests come in the form of digital “brain teaser” exercises in a “gamified” format to look at daily memory and daily executive functioning. While the study will follow participants for only a week, South will correlate the data results for longer amounts of time.

New research path

South’s research wheelhouse investigates the links between relationship satisfaction, personality and psychopathology. Focusing on Alzheimer’s disease risk is a new direction. However, since most participants are expected to have a spouse or romantic partner involved in their daily lives, the quality and state of that relationship should come into play.

“Are folks who have mild cognitive impairment, who actually have this really great support from friends and family, more buffered from later dementia?” South asked. “I would like to get some minimal reporting from the spouse, just to see how they’re doing as well as confirm the reports from the person with mild cognitive impairment on what they’re seeing and feeling.”

The gender difference between the 50 study participants will be explored too.

“Two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s disease are women, and women are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men,” South said. “Women live longer as well, so there are just more individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease who are women.”

South expects the work to publish in academic journals, but she wants the data collected to go beyond the eyes of other researchers. She will donate her findings to local organizations that work with the aging population as well as the Greater Indiana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and the Indiana Psychological Association to aid in materials and efforts in assessing Alzheimer’s risk.

“What we’re trying to do is, in general, understand and identify those individuals that are most at risk for Alzheimer’s, but particularly, what are the risk factors for women because they’re most likely to develop it?” South said. “This is such a crucial disorder for women.”

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