UT Austin sociology professor Chandra Muller is a researcher interested in the links between education and health and cognitive aging inequality in later life. She’s published widely — recent papers tackle the relationship between occupation, education, and cognitive functioning as well as how periodontal disease can affect self-reported cognitive decline — and much of her work involves following large cohorts of study participants across decades.
For the last several years Muller has been involved in the High School and Beyond study, which follows cohorts of high school students originally surveyed in the 1980s to gather information — via questionnaires, brain scans, and even blood biomarkers — about cognitive functioning, health conditions, work, family, and more. Then, in 2023, Muller secured the College of Liberal Arts’ largest-ever research grant, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and focused on how education affects the development of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
The $50.3 million, five-year project brings together an interdisciplinary team of neurologists, neuropsychologists, sociologists, education scientists, survey methodologists, biostatisticians, and neuroimaging experts from across eight universities. The researchers are re-contacting surviving members of the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS-72) — a nationally representative sample of over 14,000 Americans first interviewed as high school seniors in 1972 — to gather extensive physical, biographical, and neurological data through in-home interviews, health and wellness exams, and, for 500 people near one of five regional centers, brain scans. This multi-pronged approach will allow the researchers to study in extraordinary depth a large, nationally representative sample from high school through old age and yield unprecedented data about key inflection points in the trajectory of cognitive decline.
In late December, as the research team wrapped up its first year on the project, Extra Credit caught up with Muller to learn about what the team has accomplished so far and what comes next in this historic project.
A year+ in, where are you now with the project? What have you already accomplished?
Our overarching goals are to take the first longitudinal study of high school students from the class of 1972 and recontact them for the first time since 1986. We’re finishing up our first year, which we gave ourselves for planning, and a lot has happened so far.
One of the hardest parts in longitudinal studies is actually locating people and getting them to pick up the phone, but we are having pretty good luck and are building our address files. We also have gotten our first data from a mortality match, so we now know who from our sample has died and from what causes; the early data is coming in.
We’ve been doing a lot of work within our team of researchers, too. It’s a great group of people on the project, some of whom are extremely established researchers and a few who are junior level researchers, and there has been wonderful mentoring happening so far. We held our second mini-conference of research community participants in November and doubled the number of people from the first conference and were turning people away. The energy in the room was absolutely overwhelming. We had a call for fellowships across disciplines and UT sponsored some of them. We had people from Dell Medical School, from UT’s College of Education, from Stanford and all over. We had a neurophysiologist, an educational researcher, and more! We really brought people together on teams across disciplines.
We built a website this year: https://edshareproject.org/. It’s the Education Studies for Healthy Aging Research (EdSHARe): an interdisciplinary, collaborative research project that investigates how educational context, opportunities, and outcomes shape health and cognition across the life course. It’s gotten tons of hits and interest.
We also have an incredible staff member, Autumn Moore, who is doing a fantastic job on outreach. We took a booth to the Geronotological Society of America and we by far had the most visitors! We were also very excited to see that at least a third of the researchers visiting us were researchers of color.
Finally, we’re engaging The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), who will be hopefully holding our data, and we’re trying to get them to also work with Franco Pestilli, an associate professor of psychology whose own research focuses on building frameworks for sharing neuroscience and mental health research data to benefit individuals living with mental health conditions. We’re hoping we can work our brain scans into Franco’s group, but we’ll see if we can manage it.
A lot has happened! Where do you go from here?
We’re gearing up to work with our five MRI sites, where we’ll do our pre-tests in January, and we’re ironing out all the IRB and common protocols. These sites are usually set up to do local work and research related to clinical trials, but no one has worked on the national level to do this type of data collection for this type of study before. Next year we should have a really good sense of what happened with the MRIs.
One of the reasons we were so successful with this grant is that we did previous research in this area under the NIA, which we are finishing up our fifth year on now and which will be converted to a cooperative agreement, and I’m now an MPI on that project. That research and this project are sister studies that were designed to be harmonized, and they poll people 10 years apart in age. The High School and Beyond study sample we used for the first study is almost twice as large as NLS-72, but the participants are a decade younger. The two studies are working like pedals in tandem.
We’re gearing up to do an invited renewal for that first grant, and that’s even before the data on the first study have been released. But the sponsors know how much success we’ve had getting the training going for the NLS-72 project, and this shows how excited people are about it.
I was talking to my Department of Education contact (the Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics distributes the grant data through their restricted-use license program) and he said there is no other data like this where we have both early data and later cognitive measures.
We’re also writing our key papers as we speak.
Have any of your findings so far surprised you or been different than what you expected?
We did see a major impact with COVID from our data on the first study and that will inform this data too. In the first grant, the mortality data looks a lot like the national story, which is that there are a lot of deaths from heart disease for men and cancer for women. And we are seeing the relationship — which is key to everything we do — between cardiovascular problems and cognitive test scores. We’re seeing what we would expect to see, which is heartening.
We were also wildly successful in getting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) interested in our blood biomarkers. With the High School and Beyond renewal, we are positioning ourselves to be the first-ever major longitudinal study related to longitudinal, blood-based biomarkers in later life.
What have been your biggest challenges?
For this grant we are going out to people’s homes, which has been established as the best method for getting responses generally and also for getting responses from underrepresented populations. When you’re face to face, people who don’t normally trust the telephone will talk to you.
One obstacle people face with interviewing older populations is that sometimes the subjects have kids who don’t want their parents to respond, so one of the challenges will be to gain the trust of the respondents’ children.
Pestilli and I also share a vision to figure out how to get research in the hands of the public. He does it by making the data available, and one of the things I’m going to be tackling this year is how to frame that data for public use. Next week we go to DC to talk about this very issue.
We’re really pushing the envelope. The Department of Ed has never done anything like this. NIA even hasn’t done anything like this. We’re discussing the potential value of an interagency agreement, but none of this has been worked out before, and this is the only chance to do it as these people are getting older.
What’s your biggest win so far?
As a researcher, I’ve always felt that it’s difficult when you’re siloed in a discipline, even in sociology, which is so broad. You’re supposed to look at one aspect of a person, but over the course of my career that has never felt right to me. I’ve always thought you have to look holistically at a person’s life, but that’s really difficult to do at scale. So, I think the thing I feel is the biggest win so far is that, in my mind, these two studies have been an opportunity to bring very different researchers together around how to improve people’s lives from early to later life. The biggest win is seeing how people in different disciplines are equally excited about this. I think it might bring the disciplines together. Having the opportunity to study from this many different angles gets people to see the value of collaboration.