Nothing seemed special about the test Darla Scharf took back in 1960 when she was a junior at Howard Senior High School.
“It was like every other test,” she recalled thinking as a typical teenager at the time. “At that age you are just doing whatever they tell you to do.”
Except that it would turn out to be much more — the largest and most comprehensive study of high school students in the history of the United States, with more than 400,000 students from 1,300 schools around the country taking part. In Maryland, 8,612 students from Parkville and Howard County senior high schools, representing the classes of 1960 to 1963, became part of the landmark study.
The data from the Project Talent survey is still in use 58 years later and Scharf and the other students, now in their 70s, are called on periodically to answer new questions in hopes of bringing information to light about other issues — most recently memory and cognitive health.
Results from the latest study, which looked at whether there are indications early in life that can predict Alzheimer’s disease, were released last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers hope it leads to ways to combat the looming Alzheimer’s crisis, one of science’s greatest modern-day mysteries. The number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to more than triple, reaching 16 million, and the costs for caring for these individuals could surpass $1 trillion a year, research has found.
“We can go really far back in time and see whether there are factors in their teenage years that affect whether or not they have dementia today,” said Susan J. Lapham, the Project Talent director and principal investigator on the Alzheimer’s study.
In 1960, when Project Talent started, the Soviet Union had recently launched Sputnik and the U.S. government was concerned that Americans were falling behind in math and science.
Researchers from the American Institutes for Research arranged for students in grades 9 through 12 in select schools to take an extensive battery of tests to assess their competency in mathematics, science and reading comprehension.
Students also completed three questionnaires that delved into family background and personal interests. The survey also asked about future aspirations. Did they want to attend college or vocational school, and what careers did they see for themselves?
Their answers have been used in a variety of studies over the years that looked at how soldiers fared after the Vietnam War, whether participating in school activities was linked to successful careers, and whether aptitude tests overlooked skills such as spatial ability in determining the best career path for students.
In 2009, Project Talent started a new effort focused on health outcomes and resilience, looking at who aged well into their 60s and 70s and why.
Lapham, who is leading the research for the American Institutes for Research, said the focus on brain health came after asking participants at their 50th reunion what they most wanted to learn about.
The Alzheimer’s research study started with a pilot, with the findings published in the September JAMA article. The study looked at the test scores of more than 85,000 of the students and compared it with their Medicare claims for the years 2012 to 2013.
It found students who had problems with mechanical reasoning or remembering words in high school were more likely to develop symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life. Lower scores on reading comprehension and abstract reasoning also increased the odds for the disease.
Researchers are now using the historic data along with fresh surveys from the students to collect even more data on cognitive health. They began collecting data late in 2017 and are gathering new samples from 40,000 students for two more years. The surveys will seek to find even more links between early life experiences and brain health as people age, including whether race and gender play a role.
“We don’t have a lot answers yet,” Lapham said. “But we hope by the end of 2019 we have a lot more knowledge about dementia.”
Dr. Carleen Graham Schwimmer, a neuropsychologist at the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Brain & Spine Institute at LifeBridge Health, said the study is unique because of the amount of data it has gathered. It has the potential to identify both environmental and genetic factors that contribute to cognitive diseases, said Schwimmer, who evaluates patients to see whether they have dementia.
Students who participated in the study and follow-up research said they didn’t quite understand the magnitude of the impact it could have. Or that they’d still be participating decades later.
Brenda Sohmer, a 74-year-old who now lives in Illinois, took the test as a junior at Howard Senior High School. She doesn’t really remember what she answered, but recalls thinking the questions were interesting.
“For aspirations, I might have answered something like teaching or Peace Corps,” she said.
She liked the idea of being a part of the survey again after so many years.
“I thought that if I participated then, there was no reason why I shouldn’t share in the future surveys,” Sohmer said.
Jean Muth Newman participated in the study while attending Parkville Senior High School. The 73-year-old retired administrator, who now lives in North Carolina, said she remembers researchers saying they would follow her for a long time. She just didn’t know it would be this long.
After taking the test, she was pulled into her guidance counselor’s office and told she really should be taking college-preparatory courses because she did so well in the sciences and spatial thinking.
“You have to remember I was a girl in the ’60s and many girls were told not to go to college. That was an aspiration for boys,” said Newman, who took some college courses before getting married.
She is happy to still be participating in the study. She also has taken part in a study looking at twins who took the original surveys. She hopes it one day leads to breakthroughs in science.
“I hope I live long enough to see many more great things come out of it,” she said.