Tāmaki Innovation Campus

Activities and interventions in cognitive health research

Kristina Zawaly’s research project is being funded by a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship and she is passionate about the opportunity she has to potentially make a change for the better for the ageing population.

Kristina Zawaly began her PhD in 2014 investigating non-pharmaceutical interventions, specifically the effects of physically and cognitively challenging activities, on the cognition of older persons. The outcome, she believes, will guide development of effective recommendations and interventions to improve cognitive health and quality of life for advanced age Māori and non-Māori.

Cognitive decline is a continuum, with normal cognition at one end and dementia at the opposite, with subjective memory complaints followed by mild cognitive impairment in the middle, as phases. With the ageing of the global population, prevalence of cognitive decline is projected to increase dramatically. This has epidemic potential and there is no effective treatment or prevention to stop the progression of dementia. It is timely, says Kristina, to identify potential modifiable risk factors that can be targeted prior to onset.

Her research project, in the School of Population Health’s General Practice and Primary Health Care, is funded by a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship and comprises two parts which are separate but mutually related.

The first section will analyse data gathered from Life and Living in Advanced Age: a Cohort Study (LiLACS) NZ. LiLACS NZ is a longitudinal study started in 2010 and led by Professor Ngaire Kerse. It aims to determine predictors of successful advanced ageing and understand the trajectories of health and wellbeing in advanced age for older Māori and non-Māori. Kristina will be analysing data, specifically about different types of activities and how they predict change in cognition over time. The second component is a feasibility study for a randomized control trial (RCT) where novel physically and cognitively challenging activity programmes will be tested.

“We want to establish the effectiveness of two music-based treatments in preventing progression of mild cognitive impairment using RCT methodology,” she says. “We will be looking at two cognitively and physically challenging activity programmes: Ronnie Gardiner Method, which incorporates music, rhythm, colour, language training symbol recognition, coordination, endurance, attention, memory, and social interaction, and which may promote neuroplasticity.”

“The second will focus on dance therapy using standard dance techniques. These two programmes will be compared with a social control who will listen to the same music without movement. The intent of our study is to establish the efficacy of 12 week cognitive and physical intervention in participants with mild cognitive impairment in maintaining or improving cognition and physical health.”

Findings from LiLACS NZ will provide knowledge to this unique and growing subset of the older population. Kristina says it is significant to study the relationship between onset of dementia and stimulating activities, as following retirement these activities constitute a large portion of one’s daily activities.

Findings from the RCT component will enable larger trial testing of an intervention that has the potential to support an innovative programme that may assist in decreasing the prevalence of dementia.

Kristina is hoping that by identifying activity risk factors, new preventative and therapeutic approaches will be possible for older persons experiencing cognitive decline. She admits a personal interest in the research project, as her grandmother has mild cognitive impairment and provides her with first hand experience about how this condition affects her and the ones who love her.

“I’d like to continue research focusing on minority populations, to assist them to age successfully and independently. I am excited to be in a field where there is so much concern about the rising tide and this is an opportunity to make changes.”