Can taking up a new activity help our thinking skills as we age?

Within The Ageing Lab at Heriot-Watt University (, researchers are exploring how activity and engagement opportunities might have benefits for the health and wellbeing of older people. For example, as we grow older, we are more likely to experience general declines in our thinking and memory skills (these are referred to as our mental or cognitive abilities). Some individuals experience noticeable declines in their thinking and memory skills across their 60s and beyond, while others maintain these abilities into old age. This variation suggests that a number of factors influence the likelihood of mental decline. Keeping engaged in intellectual, social or physical activities have all been proposed as potentially beneficial.

The research at The Ageing Lab is particularly focussed on how interventions that encourage older people to become more active or learn new things might improve their health and wellbeing, and specifically reduce or delay age-related mental decline. The principal ongoing research programme is The Intervention Factory, which commenced in July 2016 supported by Velux Stiftung. [The study is recorded in the ISRCTN registry: ISRCTN96478815.] The project is considering community-based activities as potential interventions for cognitive ageing, to explore whether taking up a new activity might help improve our thinking skills as we age.

The study is recruiting people aged 65 and over in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas. Once people have completed their first set of assessments, they are then supported in taking up a new activity in the community before returning for repeat assessments about 10 weeks later. The activities people are being asked to take up include learning a new language, sport, exercise and dance classes, social groups and bingo, computer classes, and woodworking or handicrafts. The important thing about the activity people take up is that it is something they’ve not done before. The different activities comprise varying combinations of social, intellectual or physical engagement. A key question being addressed is how each type of engagement, or combinations of them, might have different benefits for a range of health and wellbeing outcomes, including thinking skills.

The first phase of the project was What Keeps You Sharp?, a national survey of people's beliefs about how thinking skills change with age and the factors that might affect those changes. Over 3,000 people aged 40-98 from across the UK participated in the survey. The findings have been published both as a peer-reviewed publication and a lay report (links at, the latter being used by charities and groups that work with older people to explore the issues around changes in thinking skills and ageing.

Why the contribution is important

Activities have been incorporated in interventions for older people for the purpose of reducing or delaying age-related mental decline. Studies with “brain training”-type games have shown some benefits, although these are often restricted to the specific task trained. Other approaches have used more lifestyle-based interventions, where older people are given the opportunity to take up new activities or learn new skills. These approaches might be seen as more realistic ways to encourage people to become more active, and might also have a range of benefits rather than a specific benefit for thinking skills.

As more people in the UK and around the world will live longer, we need to more fully understand how being active and engaged in later life, or how becoming more active, might have benefits for thinking skills, health and wellbeing. If we have better information, we can provide clearer advice and support for everyone to keep active and engaged in later life, so more people can continue to enjoy a good quality of life.

A key aim of the research is also to reduce the barriers in translating research to real-world benefit, and as part of that, the research team are actively involved in a range of outreach activities. For example, Dr Alan Gow’s public engagement activities have ranged from talks with older people’s groups to performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of Edinburgh Beltane’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. His 2017 Fringe show, “What Keeps You Sharp?”, formed the basis of a BBC Radio Scotland programme, and he contributed to the first episode of a BBC Radio 4 series "How to have a better brain", presented by Sian Williams. This work communicating directly with the public complements Alan’s contribution to national and international initiatives aimed at consolidating our knowledge of the factors associated with healthy ageing. In 2016, he was an invited “issue expert” at the Global Council for Brain Health Issue Specialist Meeting: Social Engagement and Brain Health. The Global Council on Brain Health is an independent organisation, created by the AARP in collaboration with Age UK, to provide trusted information on how all of us can maintain and improve our brain health.

by ajgow on July 18, 2018 at 05:09PM

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