What keeps you sharp?

Heriot-Watt researchers have launched a nationwide survey to explore people’s beliefs about how our thinking skills change as we age.

People often think of changes in their thinking skills in terms of decline. While some people do experience these changes, others do not. The new survey will get a clearer picture of how much people know about the possible changes and the factors they think might be good for brain health.

The ‘What Keeps You Sharp?’ survey is being led by researchers in the The Ageing Lab from Heriot-Watt University’s Psychology Department, Edinburgh.

Dr Alan Gow, Associate Professor in Psychology, leading the research, said, “As we age we may experience changes in our thinking, memory and reasoning skills. There is, however, large variation in the degree of change experienced.

“With this survey, we want to find out what people understand about how their thinking skills might change, and if they believe their lifestyle choices can affect those changes. By gaining a deeper understanding of what people across the country and of different ages believe, we can then better communicate what we know about how best to maintain thinking skills with age.“

To give the researchers the opportunity to compare how different age groups view the topic, the survey is open to adults across the UK aged 40 and over.

The survey is available online and paper copies can be requested directly from the research team. The researchers are also using their local and national networks to ensure a representative sample. The survey will remain open until early-February

Dr Gow added, “It’s important that we capture as broad a range of responses as possible. We’re working closely with our partners to ensure everyone can take part. And if people or groups want copies of the survey we’d be very happy to hear from them.”

Given international trends in ageing demographics, there is an increasing interest in how we might best protect or enhance our thinking skills as we age. The ‘What Keeps You Sharp?’ survey is the first phase of a new project exploring how a range of lifestyle factors affect cognitive skills in older people.

Quality of Life on the Isle of Shapinsay

Toni Giugliano, Age Scotland’s Policy Engagement & Campaign Officer, recently headed to Orkney as part of his work around quality of life in later life in partnership with Stirling University. 


Earlier this month the Quality of Life Project took me to Shapinsay in Orkney. It was a unique opportunity to gather the views of older people about what makes a good life in later years in a rural and remote part of the country.

I was humbled by the extremely warm welcome I received by the organisers and participants. I was picked up from the ferry terminal in the community electric car and whisked along to the “Boathouse” – a fantastic community space where we were protected from the ultra-strong winds (which locals told me were not, in fact, that strong at all!).

In total, eight residents took part in the discussions, which explored several themes, including health and wellbeing, the importance of a close-knit community, relationships, care, transport, personal independence and the role of older people in society.

Below are some statements that came out of the discussions:

“Befriending services are a lifeline – even if you have a close family, often you feel like you don’t want to impose on them. You want to be independent, and a befriender won’t pass judgement.”

“Pass times are so important once you reach a certain age – they give you a focus, a purpose in life, a reason to be on this world.”

“As you become older, you enter a different category. You are likely to become slightly invisible.”

“Many people who once had a social status during their working life tend to lose it once they reach a certain age.”

“Older people still have a lot to contribute to society.”

“There should be incentives for volunteers to take on home care visits and spend some time chatting to people. The home visits you get only last 15 minutes – it’s just not enough. You want to get to know a person and have a chat with them. With the current system they just don’t have enough time to do that.”

“The cost of the ferry is too much; it’s not affordable. Other islands (local authorities) get a better deal”.

“We’ve had to fight hard on this island for the services we have. We need to stay on the ball and continue to do that if we want to keep them.”

It was particularly interesting to hear about the work of the Shapinsay Development Trust and the activities and services it runs to improve the lives of people on the island, including social activities to combat loneliness and isolation. The Sew Shapinsay project, for example, is a great social activity bringing many people together.

The Shapinsay focus group discussion, like all other focus groups that have taken place across the country, will soon be analysed by our researcher teams (who themselves are older people). The project seeks to: (i) explore what older people believe the essence of a good life is; and (ii) lobby decision makers to improve policies that support older people as they age.

Whilst in Orkney I took the opportunity to visit the Age Scotland office in Kirkwall to discuss the Scottish Government’s Social Security Consultation and how the proposed changes are likely to impact older people. We received a number of responses which helped shape our submission. For more information on this, see the relevant pages of our website.


The Quality of Life Project is funded by the Life Changes Trust. To find out more about the project, visit our website.

Community researchers needed for quality of life study

Age Scotland is excited to participate in a new project which will research the views and aspirations of older people on what good quality of life in later years means to them. 

The Charity is being supported by the Life Changes Trust to collaborate with the University of Stirling in a research project which will give older people themselves the role of researching what the key issues and challenges are for securing good quality of life.

The Project is seeking to involve 20-25 community researchers who are over 50, including people with dementia, from across the country to help establish what good quality of life means to older people in Scotland. The findings from the project will be crucial for the Charity for informing our campaigns and parliamentary engagement.

The role of the community researchers will work in teams of 4-5, alongside researchers from the University of Stirling. Their role will be to find out what people want in later life to make them happy through running small group discussions and evaluate the information gathered. No previous research experience or skills are needed, as researchers will be provided with all the necessary training and support by Age Scotland and the University of Stirling over the course of the project, between July 2016 and August 2017.

We are now engaged in the process of recruiting the community researchers, so if you would be interested in becoming a community researcher please get in touch with Richard Baker. This should be a rewarding and informative experience for those who take part, and it is certainly going to be a crucial part of the Charity’s work over the coming year.632x305_research_project