Unraveling the Portuguese brain

DARTMOUTH — In a one-of-a-kind study, UMass Dartmouth Assistant Professor of Psychology Andrew Revell is trying to determine how Portuguese-Americans’ brains cope with age.

The “Southcoast Cognitive Aging Study” is the first research effort in the United States to look at the Portuguese-American aging process. Its goal is to investigate to what extent the environmental risk factors for dementia are present in this population in individuals aged 50 years or older.

“We’re looking at cognitive changes and what people are doing to maintain cognitive abilities into older adulthood,” said Dr. Revell, director of the Ora M. DeJesus Center for Gerontology at UMass Dartmouth.

Dr. Revell knew little about the Portuguese until he moved to this area a few years ago, but he soon came to realize how “right” this type of study was for this region.  According to the U.S. Census, the Providence metropolitan area, which includes New Bedford and Fall River, has the second largest Portuguese-American population in the United States, after the New York City area.

“I wanted to make sure the sample was representative of this area, and we can’t ignore that the Portuguese community is a large component of our culture… it’s here and it’s vibrant,” said Dr. Revell.

The first step was to translate the survey questions from English to Portuguese and make sure the materials were not only linguistically but also culturally appropriate.

He recruited the help of Assistant Professor of Sociology M. Glória de Sá, who is also the faculty director of the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese American Archives, to ensure the socio-cultural and historical accuracy of the study. With her assistance, Revell and his students prepared the materials to be used in Portuguese, found willing participants and conducted interviews.

So far, about 50 Portuguese-speaking and English-speaking individuals of both sexes ranging in ages from 52 to 89 have been interviewed for the study. Dr. Revell is hoping to capture data on at least 50 more individuals.

Study participants are asked to answer a series of questions regarding their health and family health history, as well as other supplemental cognitive measures such as their social media and technology use and amount of activity and travel. Their resting blood pressure and pulse is also analyzed.

“The changes that happen in middle life are important to know because they are a good indicator of late life health and precursors to disease,” said Dr. Revell.

Preliminary results revealed that first generation Portuguese had a lower, healthier pulse pressure than others already born in this country. They also revealed that Portuguese-speakers scored lower on global cognitive ability, higher on depression and lower on verbal fluency.

“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Revell said. “The biggest surprise was that there were no significant differences present on memory or executive function measures [between Portuguese and English native speakers].”

He noted the observed differences in cognitive domains may be due to differences in education as those speaking English as a primary language attained a significantly higher level of education than the Portuguese speaking group.

“It is easy to come up with possibilities, but harder to come up with answers,” he said. “I need to recruit more people, because I need more than 50 participants to uncover the answers.”

Nonetheless, these findings may soon be published in the new edition of the academic manual “Minority and Cross-Cultural Neuropsychological Assessment.” A 30-page chapter written by Dr. Revell and Dr. de Sá has been accepted by the editor and it is now being revised by the publishing company.

“This [study] is important,” said Dr. de Sá. “The Portuguese-American population is getting older… it’s aging and it is not being replenished with new immigration. An older population has a lot of health issues and needs, not only physical but also cognitive and psychological. It’s important to have something published because it will have an impact on the field.”

Dr. de Sá also believes the study will help clarify some misconceptions.

“It shows the uniqueness of this population,” she said. “One of the assumptions is that the Portuguese and Brazilians are interchangeable and that’s not the case. They have a different history. The Brazilian community is more recent and it comes from different social and cultural backgrounds… not all Portuguese speakers are culturally similar.”

The study is being conducted with seed money from the Joseph P. Healey Endowment and the Chancellor’s Fund. It has been approved by the Elder Rights Review Committee of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elderly Affairs and the University’s Institutional Review Board.

Anyone who would like to participate in the study should contact Dr. Revell at 508-999-8385or at arevell@umass.edu