Healthy mental ageing: the Lothian Birth Cohorts
Follow-up studies of surveys taken by Scottish schoolchildren in 1932 and 1947 give researchers a unique insight into cognitive ageing
What was the problem?
Given the rapidly increasing number of older people worldwide, there is a growing interest in what contributes to health and wellbeing in old age.
Identifying what happens in the brain as we age is one of the greatest challenges to improving the health of older people. Not everyone experiences cognitive decline in the same way but it is rare to be able to study this properly.
What did we do?
The Lothian Birth Cohorts (LBCs) are two groups of people, born in 1921 and 1936, who have been followed over many years to investigate how cognitive abilities and the brain change as we age, and which lifestyle, health and genetic factors influence these changes. A further aim of the study is to understand how childhood social background and intelligence contribute to physical and mental health in older age.
The LBCs have been described as some of the world’s most intensively studied participants.
From this unique data, the team was able to examine many different factors which contribute to age-related changes. These range from genetic and medical factors to lifestyle.
This research, led by Professor Ian Deary, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, has shown that:
- Better cognitive ageing is related to, for example: not smoking, having a healthier body, having healthier brain white matter connections, being more physically active and fit, speaking more than one language, having more education, and having a more professional occupation.
- Differences in people’s genes might account for about 25% of the variation in how thinking skills change from childhood to old age.
- Children with higher cognitive capabilities tend to live longer and are less likely to develop certain illnesses that affect thinking skills, such as heart disease and diabetes. They tend to be less likely to take up smoking and other health-harming behaviours.
- Some factors previously thought to influence cognitive ability or brain health in later life have been shown not to be directly related. Thus, coffee drinking, body mass index, alcohol consumption and inflammation in older age, factors which were previously thought to directly influence cognitive ageing were, instead, found to be associated with people's cognitive skills from youth in the LBC.
What happened next?
Research into what influences change in cognitive abilities (such as intelligence, memory, speed of processing and other thinking skills) across the lifespan and in older age, has changed public perceptions and informed policy debate.
Influencing public policy
LBC research was cited in The UK Government's Foresight Report on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, which influenced the New Economics Foundation's 'Five Ways to Wellbeing', used by health organisations, schools and community projects around the world.
As a result of one research publication, the UK Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, said, "This is an illuminating study; ingenious... and fascinating in showing that a quarter of the change in intelligence across the lifespan is explained by genetic factors."
LBC findings have been presented to policy groups (including NHS Health Scotland, and the National Institutes of Health), cross-party groups on older people and ageing, and government departments (including Government Office for Science, the Government's Departments of Health and the Scottish Parliament Futures Forum).
The research was also represented at the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Ageing in London 2016, which covered topics of age, cognitive ability and its relationship with financial decisions and security.
The research team attend Age UK’s annual ‘For Later Life' conferences, which have a large policymaker and practitioner audience.
As a result of this research, cognitive epidemiology and ageing are now part of the thinking and debate in Health Scotland.
Influencing culture and media
The studies and its research have been widely profiled in the media (e.g. BBC Radio 4's 'PM' and the BBC documentary ‘Holding Back the Years’), and featured in numerous science festivals and public talks.
A recently published study, the largest-ever study of genetic contributions to general cognitive function, was led by LBC researchers and covered by over 70 national and international news outlets including
Other cultural impacts include a Wellcome Trust commissioned play which appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and a laser-etched crystal model of the white matter in one LBC participant's brain, now part of the National Museum of Scotland's permanent collection.
Portraits of LBC participants, painted by artist Fionna Carlisle, were displayed for the Art of Intelligent Ageing exhibition at the Fire Station Gallery (Edinburgh, 2018). The exhibition attracted 599 visitors, including politicians and leading lights in the arts. It also received much positive press coverage being featured by STV Evening News and the Scotsman where it was awarded a 4-star review by art critic Professor Duncan Macmillan:
Age UK and the LBC team collaborated to develop ‘Staying Sharp,’ an online resource for public audiences on cognitive and brain ageing and health.
Launched in 2017, these colourful web pages summarise scientific evidence on factors that might influence cognitive and brain ageing, and provide advice on steps people can take to protect their cognitive and brain health.
The advice is collated into ‘top tips for staying sharp in later life’ and the pages are illustrated with quotes from older people and celebrities, a range of imagery and an animated video of LBC study Director, Professor Ian Deary, introducing the ‘top tips.’
A printed version of this resource is advertised to the public in national newspapers and magazines.
New Year's Honours
In the 2019 New Year's Honours List, Professor Deary was awarded an OBE for services to the social sciences, in recognition of his work with the LBC and its importance for society.
About the researcher
Professor Ian Deary (Professor of Differential Psychology)
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Council
Economic and Social Research Council
Medical Research Council
The Wellcome Trust