£1M project to help prevent impairment in older age

An elderly couple standing at the bottom of a staircase

A project is examining how low-cost techniques can boost memory and thinking skills to help prevent impairment in older age.

The abilities underlying moment-to-moment functioning typically decline gradually as we age but the ways in which we approach cognitive tasks, such as using particular strategies, can help to maintain our thinking skills and even delay the onset of impairment and dementia.

Instructing people to use their cognitive abilities in specific ways can boost both young and older adults’ performance, but more research is needed to inform future interventions.

A three-year project led by the University of Strathclyde will see psychologists examine what strategies people use in everyday cognitive tasks, and investigate what works.

A team of researchers, based at the universities of Strathclyde, Leeds, and Sheffield, who are experts in cognitive ageing, dementia, and strategy training, will use lab-based and 'real-world' investigations, including eye-tracking and brain imaging techniques that will show how the brain is functioning during tasks and strategy training.

Cognitive function

Principal Investigator and Psychologist Dr Louise Brown Nicholls from Strathclyde said: “Using these methods, we will examine how strategies can help maximise younger and older adults' cognitive functioning.

“Useful strategies in everyday cognitive tasks, like remembering where you placed your keys, might include actively rehearsing the information or prioritising important details.

We aim to help people to age well and maintain their independence in daily life for as long as possible. However, we need to investigate strategies comprehensively to understand which can work well and for whom, and the associated patterns of brain activity, during everyday tasks.

 “We will provide new insights regarding cognition and cognitive ageing while seeking to develop accessible, scalable, and cost-effective approaches to supporting cognition in the real world.”

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research & Innovation, will be carried out with targeted user groups from the community and the voluntary, clinical, and public sectors.  Around 600 people aged between 18 and 35 and 65 plus will take part.

Memory performance

The first set of studies will involve traditional, lab-based studies measuring performance of real-world memory. Participants will be asked to remember multiple objects presented within realistic, virtual scenes, for example a yellow teapot on a kitchen worktop.

The team at Strathclyde will assess what strategies participants use to remember the objects and their locations, and how these relate to task performance. At Sheffield, the stability of strategy use over time and in the context of everyday life, while looking at factors that may relate to strategy use, such as personality and mental wellbeing, will be investigated.

Brain activity related to optimal strategy use to inform the neural underpinnings of effective strategy use will be examined by the research team at Leeds.

Promising strategies

After testing the effectiveness of training participants in the most promising strategies, the project will develop a 'Strategy Toolkit'. This will provide state-of-the-art, accessible, evidence-based guidelines and resources on cognition and cognitive ageing, and how to use strategies to support everyday functioning.

The study is looking for participants.