Melody Ashworth remembers sitting in a quiet classroom taking a test — a test lasting more than two full days. It was the spring of 1960 and Ashworth was a junior at Lake Washington High School. She, and approximately 440,000 other high school students across the U.S., were taking a test that would be become the largest landmark study ever conducted.
Approximately 6,000 students in 17 high schools throughout Washington state participated, including Kirkland, Redmond, Monroe and Spokane.
Project Talent assessed the aptitudes and abilities, hopes and expectations of high school students from 1,353 schools across the country. Its goal was to identify the strengths and interests of America’s young adults and help guide them toward appropriate careers.
“I love taking tests and I always have, so it was like a two-day holiday,” Ashworth said. “The whole concept of this country-wide test was kind of neat…I think it’s a fantastic project and I’m glad we got to be a part of groundbreaking research.”
Project Talent is the only large-scale, nationally representative study designed to track participants from adolescence to retirement age.
“The original study was designed as a longitudinal study that could encompass any research topic,” Project Talent’s director, Susan Lapham, said.
Follow-up studies collected information on occupations, family formation, education, military service and health. The data has been used in studies examining gender wage gaps, PTSD effects post military service and poverty.
Now, 58 years later, participants are being asked again to participate in Project Talent’s latest follow-up study focusing on memory and cognitive health in old age. The entire Project Talent Aging Study includes more than 22,500 individuals across the nation. The goal of the study is to understand how experiences, environments, genetics and behaviors combine and influence aging.
“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,” Lapham said.
By 2050, studies project the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease will more than triple, reaching 16 million.
“We’re interested in learning if there are risks or protective factors related to the development of [Alzheimer’s] and see if there’s things high school kids and young adults are doing now that can lead to it and what they can do now to prevent it,” Lapham said.
Lapham said one of the biggest challenges in conducting this study was finding and reconnecting with the participants. The original study lost funding after 1980. Project Talent had no connection to any participants until 2009.
“We took advantage of the 50th high school reunions of the Project Talent schools to reconnect and let them know that the study was still going…We ended up attending over 700 high school reunions from 2010-2013,” Lapham said.