Promoting healthy memory aging in older cancer survivors

Three male older adults sit together.

Postdoctoral fellow Ashly Westrick receives grant from National Institute on Aging

Cancer survivors are living longer than ever, yet research on memory aging trajectories of older cancer survivors is limited and under-studied. Ashly Westrick, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, was awarded a grant from the National Institute on Aging to examine the risk and resilience factors associated with memory aging in older cancer survivors in the US and England. Further understanding memory aging in this population could help determine specific individual, neighborhood, and macro-level interventions to slow or stop memory loss progression.

Westrick’s research focuses on epidemiological methods to understand health inequalities in cancer outcomes, with a focus on how social determinants influence cognitive and mental health outcomes in cancer survivors. At Michigan Public Health, she works closely with Lindsay Kobayashi, John G. Searle Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, whose research primarily focuses on social and economic life course influences on cognitive aging  We asked Westrick a few questions to learn more about the grant and her work.

What research will you be conducting with this grant? 

This study looks at the long-term memory aging of middle-aged and older cancer survivors in the US and England, how these trajectories are different or similar in each country, and how socioeconomic factors could influence these trajectories. Ultimately, the goal of this research is to identify risk and resilience factors for memory aging that may be used as intervention targets to support healthy memory aging of older cancer survivors.  

Knowing that there is still limited data, what does research that is available tell us about risk and resilience factors in memory aging of cancer survivors?

The benefit of using these population-based cohort studies—such as the Health and Retirement Study and its sister study, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing—in cancer survivorship research is that these studies have harmonized, longitudinal, pre-cancer diagnosis data on memory and covariates. This allows us to better account for on-going, pre-cancer memory aging and other factors that occur prior to a cancer diagnosis that could impact memory aging after a cancer diagnosis. 

There are still challenges and limitations, but the use of these data can help provide important evidence in characterizing memory aging trajectories of cancer survivors in the population. These data also allow for cross-national comparison. 

For this project, I am investigating memory aging in two high-income countries with different healthcare and social safety net programs. This cross-national comparison can help elucidate the influence of healthcare access and socioeconomic inequalities on memory aging of cancer survivors. The ability to compare health outcomes within different social, political, and economic environments is an advantage.

What would you like people to take away from this work?

This study’s findings will enhance our understanding of the long-term aging process of older cancer survivors and identify potential intervention targets to promote healthy aging in this growing population. This has clinical and public health implications. I began my research career in hospital settings and always believed that public health research should make it back to the public. I hope that by identifying these risk and resilience factors, this research can contribute to the knowledge base of the aging process of cancer survivors and, ultimately, help improve the quality of life of cancer survivors. 

What led you to focus on this specific area of research?

I was drawn to this research because I believe that understanding the quality of life and ways to improve the quality of life of cancer survivors is so important. With members of my family, I have seen how cancer and cancer treatments can affect quality of life and I believe cancer survivorship research can provide valuable information to improve cancer outcomes.