All of us face the prospect of old age. But does this have to go hand-in-hand with a deterioration of our mental abilities? As we get older, mental functions such as memory, reasoning, attention and verbal fluency all start to deteriorate.

Perhaps surprisingly, research suggests that these declines in ability start much earlier than might be expected – at least during our 40s, if not before.

Deteriorating mental, or cognitive, ability can be a very disabling condition in old age.

Given that more and more people are living longer, and the number of individuals experiencing the devastating effects of dementia is increasing, it is vital that we understand how brain function declines with age so that effective treatments can be developed.

So can anything be done to stop or delay the deterioration of cognition as we age?

There are many products on the market that claim to prevent cognitive decline, ranging from prescription drugs to computer games.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support the use of these products.

Data from studies looking at the effectiveness of ‘brain training’ computer games, for example, suggests that although you can be trained to get better at individual tasks, there is no general improvement in cognition after playing these games.

Here in Oxford, we are running a number of studies as part of the Cognitive Health in Ageing programme to investigate whether there are any forms of mental activity that are effective in boosting cognition in older adults.

This research is an example of a successful partnership between the university and the NHS, working together to tackle a key health issue.

The work is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, which is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Oxford, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.

We are trying to establish exactly what mental functions are particularly vulnerable to the effect of ageing, and what changes in the brain as people grow older.

Importantly, we are also looking at what mental abilities are not negatively affected by ageing. We hope that by identifying what older adults are still good at, it will be possible to develop training packages that capitalise on these strengths to improve cognition generally.

If successful, this could help to inform the development of interventions that are much more effective in preventing cognitive decline and boosting cognitive health.

Oxford Mail:

  • The number of people experiencing the effects of dementia is increasin (Picture posed by model)

The research is varied. We look at brain function using brain scanners – Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) at the John Radcliffe Hospital and another, less well known technique called Magnetoencephalography at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA).

We look at the effects of different genes by asking people to give us a saliva sample from which we can analyse their DNA.

We ask people to attempt lots of different computer-based tasks to look in a very detailed way at different aspects of cognition.

We have already had many people volunteer to take part in our studies and it is only by people being willing to do so that we can make progress.

If you are over 60 years of age and might be willing to take part in our research, please do get in contact with us.

To find out what would be involved, email or call 01865 283806.