Faculty Directory

Allison Bielak

Allison Bielak, PhD

Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies

Contact Information

445 Behavioral Sciences Building
1570 Campus Delivery
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO 80523-1570

Phone: 970-491-7608
Fax: 970-491-7975
E-mail: Allison.bielak@colostate.edu


Healthy Cognitive Aging Lab

Research Interests

My training is in lifespan developmental psychology, focusing on normal age-related changes in cognition and their differentiation from pathological changes. I have a keen interest in the interindividual variability of cognitive aging, specifically why some individuals experience rapid rates of decline, whereas others experience relatively small changes in functioning. I am interested in the factors that contribute to these individual differences, including risks factors for and early detection of pathological decline, as well as optimizing influences for achieving healthy aging. These interests are reflected in my three main research areas: 1) Intraindividual variability (IIV) in cognitive performance; 2) lifestyle engagement and cognitive performance; and 3) risk factors for cognitive decline. I also have extensive experience working with and analyzing longitudinal datasets, and have developed skills in advanced statistical methods such as multilevel modeling, and bivariate dual change score modeling.

IIV in cognitive performance refers to relatively rapid yet reversible changes in performance (e.g., moment-to-moment variation on a RT task). Among older adults, increased IIV is associated with poorer cognitive performance, neurological conditions, and undesirable structural and functional brain changes, suggesting that IIV is a sensitive measure of neurological integrity. My work has demonstrated that IIV in cognitive speed appears to be a fundamental behavioral characteristic associated with growing older, even among healthy adults (Bielak, Cherbuin, et al., 2014). Further, given the demonstrated sensitivity of IIV to predicting cognitive change, my coauthors and I investigated the number of RT trials needed to reliably predict neuropathology in adults, in the hopes of IIV eventually being used in a clinical setting (Bunce, Bielak, et al., 2013). Finally, I was invited to submit a chapter on IIV in attention across the adult lifespan for the Handbook of intraindividual variability across the lifespan, reviewing the current literature in this area, and discussing areas for future growth and direction (Bielak & Anstey, 2015). I recently received a R03 from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the utility of using IIV to evaluate lifestyle interventions of aging.

The "use it or lose it" hypothesis of cognitive aging predicts that activity engagement in older adulthood stimulates the mind and thus prevents cognitive deterioration. However, research is inconsistent in finding this positive relation. My colleagues and I have investigated whether differences exist across adulthood in the strength of the relationship between cognitive ability and activity participation. We found the size of the relationship between mental and social activity and cognition did not significantly differ across cohorts in their 20s, 40s, and 60s (Bielak, Anstey, et al., 2012), but the youngest cohort showed the strongest effects in relation to physical activity (Bielak, Cherbuin, et al., 2014). We have also showed variation in activity-cognition associations depending on cognitive domain, activity type, and stage of older adulthood, suggesting that the conclusions regarding activity engagement and cognitive ability are dependent on a series of moderating factors (Bielak, Gerstorf, et al., 2014). I have also focused my research on the lack of consensus regarding the best method to assess activity engagement, and demonstrated the benefits of including multiple measures of activity engagement in a study (Bielak, 2017). I am currently conducting a study using tablets to obtain assessments of both cognition and activity throughout the day (REACT Study).

Although we cannot create a definite list of actions for achieving healthy cognitive aging, we can identify risk factors for pathological cognitive decline and work to reduce those risks. Some of my work in this area includes examining the directionality of relations between depressive symptoms and cognitive decline. We found that the model that allowed depressive symptoms to predict subsequent change in perceptual speed provided the best fit, suggesting that depressive symptoms increase the risk of cognitive decline, rather than vice versa (Bielak, Gerstorf, et al., 2011). We have also investigated the risks associated with the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) e4 allele (Bunce, Bielak et al., 2014), and traumatic brain injury (Eramudugolla, Bielak et al., 2014).


B.A., Honors, 2002, Psychology, University of Winnipeg, Canada
M.Sc., 2004, Psychology, University of Victoria, Canada
Ph.D., 2008, Psychology, University of Victoria, Canada

Honors and Awards

2013 - Springer Early Career Achievement Award in Research on Adult Development and Aging, American Psychological Association (APA) Division 20 (Adult Development and Aging).

2008-11 - Postdoctoral Fellowship, Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

2009 - Doctoral Dissertation Award, American Psychological Association Division 20 (Adult Development & Aging) Retirement Research Foundation.

2008 - Age Plus Prize, Canadian Institutes of Health Research: Institute of Aging.

2006-08 - Doctoral Research Award, Canadian Institutes of Health Research: Institute of Aging.

2005-08 - Senior Graduate Trainee Award, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research & BC Medical Services Foundation.

Current Research Projects

Using Cognitive Intraindividual Variability to Measure Lifestyle Interventions. R03AG055748, National Institutes of Health, 2017-2019.

Recording Everyday Activity and Cognition on Tablets (REACT) study. Colorado State University, 2015-2018.

Professional Experience

2017-present: Associate Professor with Tenure, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Colorado State University.

2011-2017: Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Colorado State University.

2008-2011: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ageing Research Unit, Centre for Mental Health Research, Australian National University, Australia.

Selected Publications

Bielak, A. A. M. (2017). Different perspectives on measuring lifestyle engagement: A comparison of activity measures and their relation with cognitive performance in older adults. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 4, 435-452. doi: 10.1080/13825585.2016.1221378

Curtis, R. G., Windsor, T. D., Mogle, J. A., & Bielak, A. A. M. (2017). There's more than meets the eye: Complex associations of daily pain, physical symptoms, and self-efficacy with activity in middle and older adulthood. Gerontology, 63, 157-168. doi: 10.1159/000450786

Bielak, A. A. M. (2017). Cognitive compensation. In N. Pachana (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Geropsychology. Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-981-287-080-3_277-1

Bielak, A. A. M., & Anstey, K. J. (2015). Intraindividual variability in attention across the adult lifespan. In M. Diehl., K. Hooker, & M. J. Sliwinski (Eds.), Handbook of intraindividual variability across the lifespan (pp. 160-175). New York, NY: Routledge.

Bielak, A. A. M., Cherbuin, N., Bunce, D., & Anstey, K. J. (2014). Intraindividual variability is a fundamental phenomenon of aging: Evidence from an 8-year longitudinal study across young, middle, and older adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 50, 143-151. doi: 10.1037/a0032650

Bielak, A. A. M., Gerstorf, D., Anstey, K. J., & Luszcz, M. A. (2014). Longitudinal associations between activity and cognition vary by age, activity type, and cognitive domain. Psychology and Aging, 29, 863-872. doi: 10.1037/a0036960

Bielak, A. A. M., Cherbuin, N., Bunce, D., & Anstey, K. J. (2014). Preserved differentiation between physical activity and cognitive performance across young, middle, and older adulthood over 8 years. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 69, 523-532. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu016

Bunce, D., Bielak, A. A. M., Anstey, K. J., Cherbuin, N., Batterham, P. J., & Easteal S. (2014). APOE genotype and cognitive change in young, middle-aged and older adults living in the community. Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 69, 379-386. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glt103.

Bunce, D., Bielak, A. A. M., Cherbuin, N., Batterham, P. J., Wen, W., Sachdev, P., & Anstey, K. J. (2013). Utility of intraindividual reaction time variability to predict white matter hyperintensities: A potential assessment tool for clinical contexts? Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 19, 971-976. doi: 10.1017/S1355617713000830

Bielak, A. A. M., Anstey, K. J., Christensen, H., & Windsor, T. D. (2012). Activity engagement is related to level, but not change in cognitive ability across adulthood. Psychology & Aging, 27, 219-228.

Bielak, A. A. M., Hultsch, D. F., Strauss, E., MacDonald, S. W. S., & Hunter, M. A. (2010). Intraindividual variability in reaction time predicts cognitive outcomes 5 years later. Neuropsychology, 24, 731-741.

Bielak, A. A. M., Hultsch, D. F., Strauss, E., MacDonald, S. W. S., & Hunter, M. A. (2010). Intraindividual variability is related to cognitive change in older adults: Evidence for within-person coupling. Psychology & Aging, 25, 575-586.

Bielak, A. A. M. (2010). How can we not ‘lose it’ if we still don’t understand how to ‘use it’? Unanswered questions about the influence of activity participation on cognitive performance in older age: A mini-review. Gerontology, 56, 507–519.

Thematic Research Areas

  • Adult Development & Aging
  • Focus on Methodological Quality