In 1960, students at Palmetto High School were part of a landmark study called Project Talent, which included more than 400,000 teens across the country.
Fifty-eight years later, Project Talent is circling back with some of those students for an Alzheimer’s Disease study.
Among them are identical twins Sherry Brunk and Kerry Sullivan, who attended but did not graduate from Palmetto High.
The original Project Talent study was the most comprehensive study of American high school students ever conducted, and gathered information on abilities and aptitudes, as well as strengths and weaknesses to help put teens on a successful career path.
Later, Project Talent revisited students to collect information on careers, families, schooling and health. Developed by the American Institute for Research, the study was funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
Sherry Brunk and Kerry Sullivan, now 74, were surprised that Project Talent was able to track them down after all those years.
After all, they did not finish high school in Palmetto. Their father, who had been working at Tropicana, moved the family to Bourbon, Ind., where they graduated.
After high school, the sisters went their separate ways. One moved to California, and and the other to North Carolina. Eventually, they returned to Florida. They both knew keypunch computer operation, which would prove important in their work life.
Sherry worked 38 years as an engineering aid assisting software engineers at Honeywell, while Kerry lived in Bradenton 17 years and worked in the Bealls’ headquarters in Bradenton. Her job was also computer related, including performing backups and printing reports.
Today, they live together in the Saint Petersburg area.
“I am surprised they could track us down. How did they find us?” Kerry says of the latest round of Project Talent questions.
Both sisters would like to get more feedback from Project Talent.
“I would like to know what they came up with,” Sherry said. “I hadn’t heard from them in a long time. I got something from them a month ago, and maybe five or 10 years earlier. I am just now starting to take the most recent test.”
Originally, Project Talent was funded for 20 years, which allowed researchers to follow the 1960s students into their 30s, Susan Lapham, Project Talent director, said in a phone interview.
The original test was conducted over a two-day period and collected information on student families, income, jobs, personality, creativity, intelligence and more, Lapham said.
In 2009, Project Talent approached the National Institute of Health and proposed following up on the students from the 1,353 schools nationwide, who took part in the original study.
Project Talent has received several grants in recent years, which has allowed it to revisit students through a variety of approaches, including attending 700 high school reunions, Lapham said.
Based on the most recent data collection, Project Talent staff published an article this month in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Project Talent sought to learn the associations between specific adolescent cognitive abilities and Alzheimer’s Disease and related disorders in later life.
In the study of 43,014 men and 42,749 women, lower adolescent memory for words, in women, and lower mechanical reasoning, in men, were associated with higher odds of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders in later life, Project Talent found.
Meaning? Low performance on certain specific measures of cognitive ability may indicate future risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and related disorders as early as adolescence, according to Project Talent.
Dr. Michael Mullan, executive director of the Roskamp Institute, the Bradenton-based nonprofit that has become a leader in the global effort to better understand and ultimately cure debilitating diseases of the mind, said Project Talent’s findings are generally consistent with Roskamp’s.
A person with greater cognitive reserve — the number of neurons and the number of connections between the neurons — has a better chance of circumventing problems in the brain, Mullan said.
Travel between two towns is more susceptible to disruption if there is only one road connection, rather than several, he said by way of explanation.
“People who have used their brain a lot in life and have high cognitive reserve have a better chance of withstanding Alzheimer’s,” he said.
The good news is that people can make more neuron connections through education, exercise and lowering their medical risks, Mullan said.
People can help protect themselves by reducing their risks, and the earlier the better, he said.
Researchers at Roskamp Institute, Inc. are recruiting volunteers in the Bradenton-Sarasota area for an international Alzheimer’s prevention study called the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative Generation Program.
The study is looking to recruit people who have no symptoms of the disease, but whose genetic makeup and age puts them at particularly high risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
Findings of the survey reveal that a majority of Americans are worried they may develop Alzheimer’s but are optimistic that a cure will be developed in their lifetime.
Project Talent participants who have not been contacted for the followup study and want to participate can call 866-770-6077 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Project Talent generation is very important in the history of this country,” Lapham said. “Now, they have the opportunity to help us address one of the most pressing public health issues currently facing our country: the skyrocketing rate of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.”