The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Student Research Spotlight: Genna Santorelli

Genna Santorelli

Genna Santorelli, a fifth year doctoral student in the clinical psychology program, is honored to have her gerontological research supported by the Center for Research on Families. “I never thought of my work as family research until I sat down to write the proposal” she says, but “these are our parents, our grandparents, these are such important family members in our lives.”

Santorelli’s research focuses on the 10 to 20 percent of Americans age 65 or older experiencing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a decline in their memory or other cognitive functioning that is not serious enough to significantly interfere with daily life. Declines associated with MCI are noticeable to seniors and to their family and friends. Seniors with MCI may struggle with tasks like abstract reasoning, planning, or keeping track of medications.

Unfortunately, along with MCI come much higher rates of depression, anxiety, and irritability than is typically experienced by healthy seniors. However, the linkages between mild cognitive declines and emotional health have not been thoroughly investigated.

Santorelli’s research will explore the link between MCI and emotional response on a moment-to-moment basis.  Her study uses a sad clip from an old movie to mimic everyday upsetting experiences her subjects may encounter as they watch TV, read a book, or scan the news. She seeks to understand if adults with MCI have a stronger negative reaction to upsetting stimuli and whether they recover more slowly than healthy adults. If so, this may help explain their increased risk of depression and anxiety and help seniors and caregivers better understand their emotional responses and adapt their daily environment.

“What CRF has provided me has been wonderful,” says Santorelli. The CRF Dissertation Fellowship in Family Research will allow her the time to make trips to Springfield, MA where many of her participants live. Performing the experiment in a familiar environment was crucial as traveling to the UMass psychology labs could pose a significant barrier for participants with MCI.   

Santorelli views her award from CRF as a confirmation of the “immensely important role” older adults play in our lives and the challenges many families face as their love ones experience cognitive declines and emotional disturbances.  Because of the false assumption that emotional decline is a normal part of aging, seniors and caregivers may be less likely to take steps to prevent and address the issue. By better understanding the mechanisms of negative emotional experiences for adults with MCI, Santorelli’s work will help dispel inaccurate assumptions and inform possible solutions for our aging population.