PSYCHOLOGISTS at a Scottish university are to undertake a new study to look at “real-world” activities – those already available in the community – to discover which of them could best protect thinking and memory skills into old age.

The three-year study at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh will be supported by Velux Stiftung, a Swiss charitable foundation that supports research on healthy ageing.

It will look at how increasing mental, physical or social engagement could improve cognitive skills in older people.

Dr Alan Gow, who is leading the study, said a range of lifestyle factors may be beneficial, but that a large part of the research into developing findings into interventions remained laboratory-based.

The new analysis would aim to produce evidence about the types of activities that are available and which might offer people the best opportunities for a mentally active old age.

“Keeping intellectually, socially or physically engaged have all been proposed as potentially protective,” he said.

“Many laboratory studies have also been undertaken, but can be difficult for people to relate these to their own lives and what is available to them.

“What we want to look at is the sort of activities which are available to people in the real world, options like language classes, dancing or social groups, and within a single study look at the effects of such mental, physical and social stimulation, individually or in combination.

“We will then be in a position to offer the sort of evidence-based advice that people can choose to act on within their own communities.”

Gow said that as people age, they may experience general declines in thinking, memory and reasoning skills – cognitive ageing.

He added: “There is, however, large variation in the degree of decline experienced. Cognitive ageing is one of the most feared aspects of growing older, and is related to lower quality of life and loss of independence.

“Keeping intellectually, socially or physically engaged have all been proposed as potentially protective, but we still need to better understand the relative importance of these different factors to provide advice and support for older adults.

“Given international trends towards increased longevity, ensuring the health and wellbeing of an older population will remain a priority.

“This project’s community-based setting has been designed to reduce barriers for people to apply the findings to their own lives for real-world benefit.”

The study will be undertaken by a team at Heriot-Watt’s ageing lab, and will involve 300 people between the ages of 65 and 75.

The team will also work closely with local government, older people’s organisations and charities, in addition to an advisory panel of experts.