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The Q&A: Ashley Shortz

In this week's Q&A, we interview Ashley Shortz, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University who was the lead author of a recent study about mental health and aging.

Ashley Shortz, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University and lead author of a study about mental health and aging

With each issue, Trib+Health brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week's subject:

Ashley Shortz is a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M University. Shortz was the lead author of a study that found older women’s physical health is affected by their mental health. Her research focuses on the physiological responses people have while performing certain task that require physical and cognitive work.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Health: You were the lead author of a new study that was published in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation. What is the study about?

Ashley Shortz: This study was a part of my thesis, actually. We were interested in knowing the effects of cognitive fatigue and how it affects physical performance, specifically in older adults.

For the physical performance, we did a hand grip test. Hand grip is super important for activities in daily living. Think of walking and holding on to a cane or walking and having to grab a railing or opening medicine bottles, those type of things.

That’s why we focused on hand grip function for those. If you take any daily activity, they typically have a cognitive component as well as a physical component so it’s important to know the interaction between the two.

Trib+Health: How is the aging process affected?

Shortz: One of the things that we found with this study is that even though their physical functioning was similar, we found changes in their brain activity.

Basically, what that means is that their muscles were able to perform to a similar level, but you saw deficits in the brain. That kind of suggests that there’s something different going on within their brain when they’re cognitively fatigue versus when they’re not and then they have to perform some sort of physical tasks.

Trib+Health: Why did you pick older people versus younger people?

Shortz: This is actually a subset of another study that we did in which we did look at younger people and compared them to the older people. We’re still going through that data right now, and hopefully we should have something out in the next couple of months.

But, for this, we decided to focus on older women ... because the population of older adults is growing rapidly and is expected to double by 2050. So it’s important to know what’s going on. Then we can adjust any of our ... interventions or make different recommendations.

Trib+Health: What does this mean for young people?

Shortz: That’s a common question we get. Our simplest answer is ... what can you do to maintain your cognitive functioning up to a certain level and keeping your brain active?

We’re hoping to do something with some type of brain game. Think of Lumosity or sudoku, those kind of things, to make sure that your cognitively intact and cognitively fit, mentally fit to further your physical capabilities and maintain that physical independence.

Trib+Health: So physical fitness and mental health fitness go hand in hand, right?

Shortz: Absolutely.

Trib+Health: Can you elaborate more on that?

Shortz: Nowadays, obesity is actually considered a brain disease. There are changes with obesity within your brain as far as functional changes as well as structural changes.

If you think of physical activity, if you’re sedentary, you’re typically pretty well related with being obese which then influences your mental capability. …

Trib+Health: Should people start exercising their minds now rather than later?

Shortz: I would say yes. If you can start now say at a younger age, you can potentially slow down any kind of changes that are happening.

When you age, there are normal aging processes that happen, and it happens to everyone. There are changes within the brain and at the musculoskeletal system. If you can do whatever you can to slow those changes down, it will only help you in the long run.

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