Understanding the brain in old age: the Lothian Birth Cohorts


Follow-up studies of surveys taken by Scottish schoolchildren in 1932 and 1947 give researchers a unique insight into cognitive ageing.

What was the problem? 

Given the rapidly increasing number of older people worldwide, there is a growing interest in what contributes to health and wellbeing in old age.

Identifying what happens in the brain as we age is one of the greatest challenges to improving the health of older people. Not everyone experiences cognitive decline in the same way but it is rare to be able to study this properly.

What did we do? 

The Lothian Birth Cohorts included children born in 1921 and 1936. These children were assessed using the Scottish Mental Surveys of 1932 and 1947 when they were aged 11.

Professor Deary and his team managed to track down over a thousand surviving participants who took the same Scottish Mental Survey test at age 70 which they had been given at age 11.

The team then carried out modern cognitive tests, which looked at reasoning, memory and information processing.  Members underwent physical fitness testing and completed questionnaires on personality, diet and life experiences. They also provided blood samples for DNA testing. Tests were repeated over several years.

From this unique data the team was able to examine many different factors which contribute to age-related changes. These range from genetic and medical factors to lifestyle. Childhood cognitive ability scores have also been used to predict health throughout life. Children with higher mental capabilities live longer. They are less likely to develop heart disease and dementia. They are also less likely to take up smoking and other harmful lifestyle choices.

As a result of this, cognitive epidemiology and ageing are now part of the thinking and debate in Health Scotland.
Director of Public Health Science, NHS Health Scotland
What happened next? 

Pathways to Impact

Research from this project has resulted in more than 100 publications. Media interest in the work has been very high. Results have been featured in over 300 international news articles. The BBC have also covered the project many times in radio programmes and news features.

Public Policy

A report commissioned by the UK Government in 2008 on ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing’ cited the research and included a supporting review co-written by Deary. New Economics Foundation’s ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ has been used by health organisations, schools and community projects all over the world.

Deary has worked with Age UK, the world’s largest charity working with and for older people, on their ‘Improving Later Life’ publications. The project results have given Age UK the authority to influence policy.

The UK Minister for Universities and Science asked to meet Deary, and called his research ‘illuminating’ and ‘ingenious.’ The team have presented their research to the Scottish Government, Edinburgh City Council and NHS Health Scotland.

Culture and Creativity

The Wellcome Trust commissioned a play about Lothian Birth Cohort 1936. Still Life Dreaming was performed to over 700 people at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was well-received in the press.

It was also the focus of Transformations: Life Portraits, a unique collaboration between artist Linda Kosicewicz-Fleming and the university’s Centre for Cognitive Ageing. Photographic and video installations were exhibited alongside a discussion event. The work also appeared at ‘The Art of Ageing’ in Newcastle which was profiled in The Times, and in a YouTube video.

The Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 is the focus of a permanent exhibition at the Science Museum in London which has daily visitor numbers of up to 20,000. The exhibition opened in June 2010 in the “Who Am I?” gallery.

About the researcher(s)

Professor of Differential Psychology, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology

Research unit


  • Age UK
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Council
  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • Medical Research Council
  • The Wellcome Trust

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