Size matters

Dr Sabina Brennan is a research psychologist, neuroscientist, filmmaker, award-winning science communicator and author of the No 1 bestseller 100 Days to a Younger Brain. In her guest blog, Dr Brennan shares with us why brain size matters.


Some people are able to tolerate more Alzheimer’s disease-related pathology than others while still maintaining cognitive function. We call this resilience reserve. Using a computer analogy we draw a distinction between brain reserve (the hardware) and cognitive reserve (the software).

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Dr Sabina Brennan

Brain reserve (the hardware) is the structural stuff: grey matter, white matter and the thickness of your cortex. Brain reserve refers to the actual differences in the brain itself that might explain how one individual has greater tolerance to damage than another.
Beth and Janet have the same amount of Alzheimer’s disease, but their brains are different sizes. Beth has more brain cells, denser brain connections and a larger brain than Janet. This means that Beth has more brain without disease than Janet has. It is not the amount of disease in the brain that accounts for differences in cognitive functioning between people, it is the amount of intact brain. Beth’s bigger brain will be more resilient than Janet’s to the effects of the same amount of disease pathology.

To put it simply: brain size matters. The larger your adult brain is, the longer you can resist the impact of disease on your functioning.

As the disease progresses the amount of diseased brain will increase and the amount of intact brain will decrease until a threshold is reached where the intact brain can no longer maintain normal cognitive functioning. Of course, the less Alzheimer’s disease pathology you have the better. However, if you do develop pathology the good news is that a brain healthy lifestyle can build brain reserves which will contribute to resisting its effects.

Cognitive reserve (the software) refers to the flexibility of brain networks in the face of disruption caused by ageing, injury or disease. Ben and Doug have the same amount of hardware (brain reserve). Ben can tolerate more disease-induced brain changes because the capacity of his underlying software (cognitive reserve) differs from Doug’s in a way that allows his brain to cope with or adapt to the disruptions.

Taking brain and cognitive reserve together let’s consider Jake and Peter, two fifty-five-year-old men. Jake has high reserve (high resilience) and Peter has low reserve (low resilience). Both begin to develop the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains at the same time. Both die at the age of seventy-five. Peter’s cognitive function gradually declines, going from mild through moderate, to severe and ultimately to his death. In contrast, Jake, won’t manifest any perceptible symptoms. Even though the disease pathology is still progressing in Jake’s brain his high levels of reserve allow his brain to cope with and compensate for the physical damage that is occurring until his death at seventy-five.

Had Jake lived for longer his reserves would eventually have been exhausted and he would have manifested dementia symptoms. However, unlike Peter, Jake’s decline would be dramatic and severe. Like falling off a cliff edge. Jake would have experienced a precipitous drop in his cognitive functioning, bypassing the mild and moderate stages. Reserve built through brain healthy life choices allows people like Jake to spend a greater proportion of their life living independently in possession of their cognitive faculties and a smaller proportion of life with functioning devastated by this disease.
Your brain has the capacity to build reserves. Adopting a brain healthy lifestyle is like investing in brain capital that you can cash in at some point in the future to cope with or compensate for damage, disease or decline. It will also optimise your brain function in the here and now. Here are my top tips for building reserves

  • Cherish sleep
  • Manage Stress
  • Stay socially engaged
  • Go mental (challenge yourself, learn new things, embrace new experiences)
  • Love our heart
  • Get physically active
  • Adjust your attitude (be positive, enjoy life and keep smiling)

About 100 Days to a Younger Brain – maximise your memory, boost your brain health and defy dementia.

Jacket_Insta100 Days to a Younger Brain delivers, in clear everyday language, the basics on how your brain works and how to keep your brain healthy. The good news is that the life style changes, activities and attitudes that boost brain health can easily be incorporated into your daily life. The book is grounded in scientific research and filled with really practical tips to help you to do that. While there are generic tips that we can all follow to keep our brains healthy 100-Days to a Younger Brain acknowledges that your brain is unique, shaped by your life experiences and life choices. As you work through this life-changing programme you will gain a clear picture of the current state of your brain health and insight into what you are doing right and what needs fixing. Armed with this information you will set your own personal goals and create a bespoke brain health plan to optimise your brain function, slow brain ageing and minimise the impact of brain injury and brain disease

Creative Ageing: The Luminate Festival is back for 2019

Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing organisation, delivers a diverse programme of creative events and activities throughout the year. Their projects bring together older people and those from across the generations to explore our creativity as we age and share stories and ideas about what growing older means to all of us.

The biennial Luminate Festival is back for 2019, running from 1–31 May. Ahead of the festival, we spoke with Luminate Director Anne Gallacher

Anne Gallacher, Director of Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing organisation © Eoin Carey

Anne Gallacher, Director of Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing organisation © Eoin Carey

Why do we need a creative ageing festival?

Older people are very active in Scotland’s vibrant cultural life, and there are some wonderful arts projects and groups all over the country.  The Festival was set up to showcase this inspiring creative work – you can attend performances and exhibitions of work by older people, or take part in a workshop where you can try your hand at something new.  We also have a growing strand of dementia friendly events.  The Festival celebrates older people’s creativity in its many forms across the country, and we hope it will inspire more older people to take part in arts activities not only during May but also at other times of year.

What can we expect to see in 2019’s Festival?

Every year the programme is really diverse.  This year you can try clog dancing in Edinburgh; visit an exhibition by older artists in Easterhouse; join our massed community singing event in Aberdeen; take part in dementia friendly art workshop in Ullapool; or attend a social dance event for older LGBTI people in Glasgow or Inverness.  There’s also a film tour featuring some great films with ageing themes.  This is just a flavour of what’s on offer, and we hope there’s something for everyone!

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A Craft Café workshop in Govan

What are you most looking forward to about this year’s Festival? 

The Festival month is a real privilege for me.  I am lucky enough to travel around Scotland attending lots of Festival events, and meeting the people who organise them as well as those who attend as audiences or participants.  I am really looking forward to my travels and to the activities I will have the chance to take part in. Particular achievements in past years have been learning to crochet and learning to do a quickstep, neither of which I could do till I started in this job!  I don’t know yet what my new skills from the 2019 Festival will be, but I’m looking forward to finding out!

What creative thing do you love to do?

I have sung in choirs since I was in my teens, and it’s still something I love doing.  There’s something very uplifting about singing in a group of people, and I have made many good friends along the way. For the last five years I have sung in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus, and we have a busy concert programme across the year.


You can browse the full festival line up on Luminate’s website

The Art of Intelligent Ageing: Portraits of the Lothian Birth Cohort

In June 1932 and 1947, almost all 11-year-olds across Scotland undertook a test of their thinking skills, giving us a comprehensive account of the intelligence of Scotland’s children born in 1921 and 1936. Decades later, researchers at the University of Aberdeen and Edinburgh rediscovered these tests and spotted a rare chance to study the factors that influence lifetime cognitive ageing. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh, led by Professor Ian Deary, contacted those who had sat the tests and still lived in Edinburgh and the Lothians, and in doing so formed the Lothian Birth Cohorts (LBCs), which are now among the most important studies of ageing anywhere in the world. Members of the LBCs have been followed up since 1999; they have been assessed on many cognitive tests, they have taken part in brain scans, they have undergone many blood-based tests including genetic tests, and have carried out questionnaires on their social and family lives.

A Lothian Birth Cohort reunion in 2017

A Lothian Birth Cohort reunion in 2017

The Art of Intelligent Ageing: Portraits of the Lothian Birth Cohorts by Fionna Carlisle is a unique art exhibition set to honour this remarkable group of people who have contributed so much to health research.JohnScott Exhibit logo

Fionna Carlisle is a renowned portrait artist and a former student of the Edinburgh College of Art. She has painted many of Scotland’s famous faces, including Alex Salmond, former leader of the Scottish National Party and the late MP Robin Cook. Fionna, who hails from Caithness, is an internationally recognised artist and splits her time between Crete and Edinburgh. She spent over four years painstakingly detailing some of the LBCs’ participants and researchers using her signature style of colourful, bold brushstrokes.

Alongside the paintings are scientific treasures from the LBCs, including a 3D-printed brain and laser-etched crystal block of the brain of one LBC member, John Scott. A special portrait of Nobel-prize winning physicist Peter Higgs – who also took part in an Edinburgh study of ageing – will also be on display. He took part in a cognitive ageing study that was a forerunner of the LBCs.

Fionna Carlisle said, “The camera is instant whereas the artist listens and studies the sitters to gradually build a human picture. With these paintings I wanted to filter age and show the youth and spirit of the older sitters as people who have real bodies and limbs, spirit and life.”

Professor Ian Deary said, “The Lothian Birth Cohorts have encouraged my scientific team to scour their minds, bodies, and histories to build rich and valuable accounts of their negotiating the whips and scorns of time.”

The exhibition is curated by Duncan Thomson, former Director at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and is free to visit. It will run on Tuesdays to Saturdays from 27 October to 24 November at the Fire Station, Edinburgh College of Art.

Let’s celebrate those making a difference in your community

Every day in communities across Scotland there are individuals making a positive difference to the lives of older people. Whether it be through volunteering, running local groups and services or campaigning for change, these dedicated individuals put their time and effort into making sure the older people in their local communities and beyond can love later life.

We believe the dedication of these inspiring individuals deserves to be recognised. Cue the Age Scotland Awards!

Celebrating those making a difference

Each of our award winners has a short film produced about them and is invited to our National Conference to receive their award after a showing of the film. Previous guest awards presenters have included BBC Broadcaster and Journalist Jackie Bird and Singer-Songwriter Eddi Reader.

The 2019 awards will be presented at the Age Scotland National Conference, held in March at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Glasgow.

The 2019 award categories

Our Jess Barrow Award for Campaigning and Influencing recognises political or awareness-raising campaigns that have made an impact on the lives of older people. Our 2018 winner was Walking Football Scotland in recognition of their nationwide campaigning to get more people moving by playing a walking version of the beautiful game.

 

The Patrick Brooks Award for Best Working Partnership is for partnership working between two or more organisations that have made an outstanding contribution to addressing the needs of older people. The 2018 award recognised the fantastic work between the Health and Social Care Partnership and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Podiatry Service in the running of Toe to toe footcare. The service is helping older people access foot care services that would not otherwise be available and the chance to have a chat with the practitioner means service users can be referred to other services quickly and efficiently.

 

Our Services for Older People Award recognises an individual or group who have provided an innovative service run by, or on behalf of, older people which has addressed the issue of loneliness and isolation and/or improved health and wellbeing in later life. For the 2018 award, Roar – Connections for Life impressed the judges with their huge range of services from keep fit classes to fall prevention efforts to dancing and lunch.

 

The Age Scotland Member Group of the Year Award recognises a member group whose activities have championed the needs of older people and had a profound impact on their members. Dalbeattie Men’s Shed won the award for 2018. The Shed provides a comfortable space for men to congregate, enjoy some banter and put their skills to good use (or learn new ones!).

 

Our Volunteer of the Year Award celebrates a volunteer who has championed a group or organisation to benefit the lives of other older people or on behalf of older people. In 2018 we congratulated Gladys Cruickshank who runs the Alford Car Transport Service. Coordinating 30 volunteers, the service Gladys runs has helped thousands of people get to medical appointments and other commitments since 1999.

 

Lastly, we have the Age Scotland Inspiration Award. Our inspiration award is open to both individuals and groups – celebrating either an inspiring older person or a group who has supported or enabled older people to love later life. In 2018 we celebrated Mary Walls of Kirkcaldy. She inspires so many people with her warmth, her kindness, her caring attitude and her determination to see older people in Kirkcaldy lead an enjoyable later life.

 

We also had a group winner in 2018 – the Scone and District 50 Plus group. The group offers a huge number of activities, tackling loneliness and isolation and letting people learn new skills and meet new friends.

 

Feeling Inspired?

Do you know a local champion, group, or service doing amazing things? Nominate them today!

The deadline for nominations is Friday 30th November. Find out more about how to nominate at www.agescotland.org.uk/awards

Autumn Voices: exploring creativity in later life

Age Scotland are grateful to be receiving proceeds from the sales of a new book, Autumn Voices. The book has been published as part of a project exploring how ageing relates to writing and other forms of creativity. We hear from the book’s editor; author, dramatist and lecturer Robin Lloyd-Jones.


Three years ago, for the first time in our history, there were more people over the age of 60 in Scotland than under 18. This trend is increasing. The percentage of elderly people in the population of Scotland becomes greater each year. robinOur economy will not survive unless we stop regarding our elderly citizens as a burden and start seeing them as potentially productive and useful people whose maturity, greater life experience and insights are valuable assets. A society that is better for older people is better for people of all ages. To address the problems and the opportunities of the elderly is to benefit the welfare of our society as a whole.

This was my motivation for undertaking the Autumn Voices Project (funded by Creative Scotland). When I began the project, in 2015, I was 80, and 83 when it ended.  During this time I interviewed twenty Scottish writers ranging in age from 70 to 92 about their later lives and their continuing creativity. The majority of these men and women had made for themselves a benign circle. That is to say their creativity contributed to their health and wellbeing, and their health and wellbeing, particularly their mental health, was an important factor in maintaining their creativity.

It has certainly been my own experience that to forget self in a worthwhile project is like a tonic. Being completely immersed in what you are doing, having the mind fully engaged, having a purpose in life, waking up with something to look forward to, and knowing that you are still doing something useful to, and valued by, society – these things contribute massively to a happy, healthy and fulfilled old age.

These twenty autumn voices represent a total of over 150 years of varied, fascinating and colourful life experience since passing the age of 70. They are certainly proof of the saying: ‘You don’t grow old, you become old when you stop growing.’ I learned a great deal from them – not only about creativity in later life, but also about successful ageing.

Many of those to whom I spoke thought they had become more accepting and more tolerant not only of self, but of others. This, they reported, had opened the way to being able to forgive. Instead of huge amounts of mental energy being tied up in feelings of hatred, annoyance, suspicion and other negative feelings, it became available to channel in creative directions.  They spoke, too, about having a new relationship with time and about a heightened appreciation of everything around them. As hunger sharpens the appetite, so age had intensified their awareness of the beauty and wonder of the world, of love and of blessings.

One thing they definitely did not accept was the negative stereotype of the elderly – the self-fulfilling prophecy of old folk as people whose useful life is over and who no longer have the physical or mental capacity to be productive or creative. We live in a culture that is still learning how to age. Through their writing and their example, the remarkable men and women I was privileged to meet are at the frontier of this learning process.

Autumn Voices (Edited by Robin Lloyd-Jones, PlaySpace Publications, June 2018) can be ordered through the project website: www.autumnvoices.co.uk

Later life in Scotland: Taking the long view’

On the 20th of March Age Scotland members, guest speakers and invited guests will come together at the Radisson Blu in Glasgow for our fourth National Conference. Elizabeth Bryan, Age Scotland’s Community Development Coordinator, shares the thinking behind this year’s theme ‘Later life in Scotland: Taking the long view’.


Age Scotland is proud to work with and for older people, including supporting our member groups as they work to make a difference in their communities across Scotland. For many years older people have come together to support their local community, used their collective voice to campaign for change, and worked to improve later life for future generations.

Our predecessor charity, the Scottish Old People’s Welfare Committee, was established in 1943, later becoming Age Concern Scotland and more recently renamed Age Scotland following the merger with Help the Aged. 2018 will be Age Scotland’s 75th birthday.

Big anniversaries offer us a chance to reflect, so at our national conference with the help of our guest speakers and workshop presenters we will explore the changes that have taken place and the progress that has been made in Scotland in relation to later life over the past 75 years. We will also honour the commitment and achievements of older people’s groups, and discuss what would make life better for older people today and in the future.

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There will be a variety of information stalls, time for our member groups to network and share their learnings with each other and a number of interactive workshops.

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The conference will culminate in the presentation of the 2018 Age Scotland Awards to recognise and celebrate the exceptional commitment and contribution individuals and organisations make to ensuring Scotland is a good place to grow old in. We’re delighted to be joined by Jackie Bird to present the Age Scotland Awards.

We look forward to welcoming Age Scotland member groups and guests from across Scotland for a day of discussion, networking and celebration. It’s set to be a fantastic day and is already over-subscribed! You can follow discussions on the day on our social media channels.


To find out more about becoming an Age Scotland member, please contact members@agescotland.org.uk

Directed by North Merchiston

As part of 2016’s Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing festival, and with support from Scottish Care, Documentary Filmmaker and Photographer Duncan Cowles worked at North Merchiston Care Home in Edinburgh to create a collection of short films directed by residents. From this coming Monday 20th March a film a week will be released to the public. We spoke to Duncan to find out more about this fascinating project.


Can you tell us a bit about Directed by North Merchiston?

Directed by North Merchiston is a project that was inspired by one of my previous films Directed by Tweedie where I attempted to get my Granddad to make a film, and I helped him to do it. With this new project I wanted to try and take that idea into a care home and work with the residents on making some short films.

One of the biggest issues for older generations today is loneliness. I wanted to give the residents of North Merchiston Care Home a voice, and ultimately provide them with both an audience and platform so that they could say whatever they wanted and create memories for their families. So instead of me coming in with my camera and making films about the people living there, I wanted the residents to think of themselves as the filmmakers and what story they’d personally like to tell.

The result is a series of five short films. I think each one of the residents has really enjoyed the process. Some were slightly reluctant initially, but once we got started admitted that they were having a laugh, and were glad they’d agreed to take part.

Some of them have spoken about how they’ve appreciated me simply coming in and spending time with them, and taking an interest in their lives. I think this will ultimately be one of the most valuable outcome of the project; the enjoyment that they’ve all had taking part. Hopefully that comes across in the films.

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The five residents that Duncan worked with to produce the short films.

Any favourite moments from the project?

Watching the footage back with the participants, and asking them about what bits they liked the most, and the things they would like to be focused on in their films, was really touching for me. For example; Edith who’s 90 years old, talked about how her Grandmother used to say to her when she was a wee girl, that the best thing in life was that: “It was nice to be needed”, particularly as an older person. Then deciding with Edith that the film could focus on that and be a little tribute to her Grandmother, I could see meant a lot.

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Edith’s film “It’s Always Nice To Be Needed” is released on the 3rd of April

Definitely on a personal level, having the honour to get to know these people as they’re in their later years, has been amazing. As a 26 year old I, like many others, still have a lot to learn about life and all of its ups and downs. These people have experienced it, they’ve been through so much, and listening to them talk about it, how they’ve coped and what they think and feel looking back over it all, is just staggering. It’s an education going into a care home, and it really makes you reflect a lot upon your own life, circumstances and future.

Why are creative outreach projects like Directed by North Merchiston important?

Everyone is creative, whatever our ages, and the chance for care home residents to take part in a project like this can offer all sorts of benefits. I’ve been going in and out of the care home for the past two months and seeing a positive change happen immediately in front of my eyes. Something like this isn’t necessarily a very public facing activity, but is equally as important as it’s making a difference to people directly.

Initially we did a really small screening of the films for friends and family in the care home. The hope is that the films will take on a life of their own, as we share them to a wider audience. It’s really important that older people’s voices are heard by other generations, and often that doesn’t happen.


You can catch the first film May: This is Your Life here.

Find out more about Luminate by visiting their website