Kristina Zawaly

PhD Candidate
Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care
School of Population Health



PhD Candidate
Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care
School of Population Health

An accidental cognitive gerontologist

Kristina’s early passion for cognitive function and physical activities led her to concurrently complete a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science at the University of Winnipeg.

She continued her postgraduate education in Disability Studies at the University of Manitoba. The interdisciplinary nature of this Master’s programme provided her with a unique skill set to understand disability and ageing through both a medical and social approach.

But her passion for gerontology occurred by accident; she failed to register for the required science courses and days before the semester started she was emailing professors to be accepted as a late entry. She received an email back almost immediately inviting her to attend a gerontology course with the condition that she would have to provide a rationale if she decided not to continue. She accepted the challenge and after that class, was hooked! She then had the privilege to be mentored by the Director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba and became the first student leader of the Geriatric Interest Group for the University for the duration of her degree.

This passion for gerontology and neurology directed her research to focus on older Canadians with chronic pain and its impact on their health related quality of life, supported by the Jack MacDonnell Scholarship courtesy of the University of Manitoba’s Centre on Aging and a Manitoba Research Data Centre Fellowship. This culminated in her graduating with a Master’s of Science along with a Graduate Specialization in Aging.

Kristina is privileged to have met her mentor Ngaire Kerse, Head of the School of Population Health and a Professor in General Practice and Primary Health Care, who is presently her Primary Supervisor with whom she shares an equal passion for advanced age research.

Subsequently, Kristina’s next chapter began with her being transplanted from the frozen North of Canada to the subtropical North of New Zealand where she is pursuing a PhD in General Practice and Primary Health Care at the University of Auckland. The University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship, a University of Auckland Doctoral Academic Leadership Initiative Scholarship and a Brain Research New Zealand Project Grant support her research and academic development. She is engaged in the community through activities such as her annual involvement at Brain Day, hosted by the Centre for Brain Research.

Kristina’s PhD provides her the opportunity to bring together her previous academic research to enable her to investigate the cognitive load of physical activity on cognitive function in older persons, especially those experiencing cognitive decline. Her research is comprised of separate but related studies, which build upon each other.

Initially, a diagnostic accuracy study was completed to evaluate a general cognitive function test, the Modified Mini Mental State (3MS) in the oldest old Māori and Non-Māori. This provided accurate 3MS cut points to diagnose dementia in both populations, which were not previously available. This data is being applied to a large multiple regression model which will allow for the evaluation of how the varying degrees of cognitive load in physical activities can affect cognitive decline and dementia over a 5 year period in the oldest old Māori and Non-Māori.

To further evaluate this relationship, a pilot randomized controlled trial was completed, which allowed for exploration of the feasibility, acceptability and effectiveness of stimulating cognitively and physically demanding community based social interventions delivered simultaneously in older persons with mild cognitive impairment.

Kristina is excited to share the ongoing research findings. She and Ngaire will begin disseminating them at the International Society of Posture and Gait Research World Congress and the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics World Congress taking place this year.

“This research is preliminary, consequently we have unanswered questions, such as understanding its effects on the pathophysiology of cognitive decline. We would like to further explore by continuing and growing this research with colleagues.”

As people are living longer, the prevalence and incidence of cognitive impairment will certainly grow. Kristina hopes that the results from this research are an initial step in positively reacting to this change as well as facilitating our knowledge of the impact that simultaneously stimulating cognitively and physically demanding activities can have on cognitive function as one ages. This may have the potential to promote successful ageing, a better quality of life and reduce the financial and service demands on healthcare.

 “I was always fascinated with the mind-body relationship but felt frustration when I couldn’t find a programme which facilitated my understanding… To overcome this obstacle I completed two degrees to provide me with the breadth and depth I sought”