Can New Activities Help an Ageing Brain?

Heriot-Watt University front entrance

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

That’s a key question for researchers interested in cognitive ageing, the field that explores how thinking skills change over the life course, and what factors might be associated with those changes.

The Ageing Lab at Heriot-Watt University’s Department of Psychology have made it their mission to find out how new activities could affect our thinking skills as we age.

As we age, we are more likely to experience changes in our thinking and memory skills (these are referred to as our mental or cognitive abilities). Some people experience declines in their thinking and memory skills across their 60s and beyond, while others maintain their 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.

In our major study in The Ageing Lab, we are asking people take up new and challenging activities to see how those might have benefits for their thinking skills, as well as their health and wellbeing more broadly. We’re on target to have over 300 people in that study, and the results will be reported later this year. But there’s still time for people to take part. To find out what that might involve, here are what some of our current participants think about their experiences.

Picture by Lesley Martin
7 June 2018
© Lesley Martin 2018

Our research on how our thinking skills change as we age has now been running for over two years and several participants have gone through the study and come out the other side.

They talked us through their experiences of taking up a new activity, the challenges and opportunities it’s given them, and the difference it’s made to their health, wellbeing and thinking skills.

Jenny joined us because she felt the study sounded important and interesting. She told us:

“The ageing population with the increased demands on health and social services has major implications for the country, and in common with many of my age group, the prospect of dementia fills me with horror. I liked the idea of taking up something completely new and random.”

Participants on the study take up a new activity within the community, and complete testing in the Psychology department to determine the impact the new learning has on cognitive abilities. Once they’ve done one activity, participants can also take up the opportunity to try another.

Diana decided to take part in the study after seeing Dr Alan Gow at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. She took up woodworking, and although she found it challenging, she said: “I enjoyed the challenge and was amazed at the thought process and methodology used. I tend to just go for it unprepared and certainly lacking strategy as well as skills. I learned to prepare, think ahead and plan, and certainly learned by my mistakes.”

Jenny’s first activity was to learn Italian – a decision that later resulted in taking a holiday in the country! She says: “It was enjoyable, difficult, fun and challenging all at the same time. I liked the fact that it was something useful, to help me communicate a bit on holidays, and enjoyed the mental challenge.”

Diana agrees, saying:

“I loved the opportunity of taking on something new. I applied myself to each activity whilst I am normally guilty of saying I take something on, but never get round to it or give up half-way through. But there was a hidden discipline in this so I completed tasks.”

Picture by Lesley Martin
15 June 2018
© Lesley Martin 2018

After each block of activity, participants complete testing sessions measuring a variety of factors, including memory, attention and other cognitive functions, which several of our participants have reported to be an interesting challenge!

Our participants have been very positive about the benefits of joining the study, and urge others to give it a go. Diana said: “Go for it. You have nothing to lose and could really enjoy yourself and learn something new.” Alick echoed this, saying: “My advice to others would be to go for it. New experiences help us to enjoy life.”

Jenny said:

“I would encourage people to take part in the study. I have gained a new interest and have learned about an art form.”

Kenneth feels that people should participate to help future generations: “I tell my grandchildren that we take pills for headaches and rashes only because a long time ago, researchers thought we might benefit. This research might help them when they get on in years.”

For a more in-depth insight into the benefits of participating in The Ageing Lab’s research study, read Rosemary’s story…

The study is continuing to explore the question “Can taking up a new activity help our thinking skills as we age?” If you’re aged 65 or over and would be interested in taking part, you can find more details at www.healthyageing.hw.ac.uk.

Rosemary’s story

Rosemary was no stranger to research and learning, having achieved an MA in Education as a full-time working mother. She joined the project after finding out about it in the retirement housing complex where she lives. “I thought it was a way to contribute now that I’m retired.”

She took up Zumba dancing as her first activity, which she found that she greatly enjoyed. She says: “I loved the Zumba Gold. Not difficult in itself, you do what you can, and lots of fun, especially as the teacher played quite a bit of Latin music, and having lived in New Mexico for a long time, I loved that. The best part was that I found it seemed to serve almost like an hour of therapy.”

From this, she went on to be assigned to a pottery class for her second activity. She says: “I quite enjoyed it. I’ve not really ever been all that good at ‘handi’ stuff, but I’ve assigned myself a little task.”

She urges people to see the possibilities of taking on something new, however intimidating it may seem. “I tend to think any activity you do probably has a benefit effect, especially when it is a new activity. You are confronted with new things to absorb and deal with. I would think this always has a positive effect in holistic ways. In this case, learning about the different clays, the different techniques of working with it, the new terminology and the expectations of behaviour in the pottery classroom.”

She advises anyone considering the study to go for it, saying:

“Embrace taking on a new activity. I actually found it easier to do something brand new than something which have played more to what I consider my strengths. I think I might have found that more demanding in a stressful way. Learning new things, whatever they are, feels good for the mind, body and spirit.”

The study is continuing to explore the question “Can taking up a new activity help our thinking skills as we age?” If you’re aged 65 or over and would be interested in taking part, you can find more details at www.healthyageing.hw.ac.uk.

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