Professor, grad student studying aging effects

Taylor Harrison

Psychology professor Sharon Mutter is so productive with her research that Hopkinsville graduate student Candice Groves came to WKU just to work with her.

“I always have research going on,” Mutter said. 

Mutter is working on a project to discover if there’s a way to structure learning tasks to benefit older adults.

Mutter works in the cognitive aging laboratory and studies the impact of age-related cognitive changes in older adults’ judgment and decision-making processes.

Mutter is currently working on a master’s thesis for Groves.

Groves took an aging class and found out more about deficits in associative learning.

“I’m really interested in older adults and what goes on with successful aging,” Groves said.

Groves wants this research to go toward helping older adults.

Steven Haggbloom, the psychology department head, said his department is very research productive.

“Almost all, if not all, who are tenured or on tenure track, are involved in research to some degree,” Haggbloom said.

Mutter said it’s relatively easy to get students to come in to represent young adults, but getting community volunteers for the older adult testing is more of a challenge.

By older adults, Mutter is referring to people who are at least 60 years old and above. Mutter said that the average person in her experiments is 72, and she’s had some participants as old as 90.

She usually finds her participants by using voter registration rolls. Mutter said that because they’re public records, she is able to access registrations and randomly sample the proper individuals. She then sends out letters to those people and waits for their responses.

“What we’re trying to find out is whether or not we can structure the learning environment or change the learning task in a way that actually provides some special benefit for older adults and might equalize their performance with younger adults,” Mutter said.

Mutter’s prediction for her current project is that if the learning environment is structured in a certain way, older adults’ performance can be improved.

Mutter also said that there are two major areas in which there are often cognitive deficits in older adults: associative memory and causal judgment.

Associative memory is the brain’s ability to learn the relationship between two items or events.

For instance, Mutter said if two random words such as doctor and house are given together, the older adults might later be only given the word doctor and tested on whether or not they could remember house.

“If they can, that means they’ve learned to associate those two words together,” Mutter said.

Mutter also said that for the purpose of this experiment, she’s testing adults who are going through normal aging processes and are not suffering from debilitating affects or illnesses.

Mutter doesn’t have funding for the project, but she and her colleagues have written a proposal to obtain money to purchase equipment that will help with the research.