Back to the start

Written by Katie Mackintosh on 9 December 2014

“Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young,” so Fred Astaire once said.

These wise words were repeated by Professor Ian Deary last week during Voluntary Health Scotland’s seminar on health, wellbeing and your brain.

Over the last few months, I’ve been exploring the ways we care and are cared for across the lifecourse. So I was struck by the suggestion from Deary – who is the director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh – that policymakers and public services focused on older people’s health and wellbeing should consider paying closer attention to early years. 

Deary is a guardian of what he affectionately refers to as “Scotland’s crown jewels” – the Scottish Mental Surveys of 1932 and 1947, which tested the intelligence of almost every child born in 1921 or 1936. He said it is a “privilege” to now be following up this “unique” data with cohorts in Lothian and Aberdeen in order to consider why some people’s brains age better than others.

“Let’s jump away from cognition for a moment and say we are worried about growing shorter. So we go to a doctor and we say, ‘Doctor, I think I’m shrinking’. That is not unreasonable. As we get older we do shrink a bit...the doctor might measure you and then the next thing they might do is ask what height did you used to be,” he explained. 
“In cognition you could imagine it is quite useful to do the same. If people think their cognitive skills aren’t what they used to be, it would be quite nice to have something from a while ago when you were perfectly well. Well, almost nobody has got this, except Scotland. So when we discovered this data existed, we said we’ve got a responsibility here to start these Scottish survey follow-ups to bring people back when they are older and compare.”

As it turns out, Astaire was half right as they quickly discovered that about half of the differences in older age in general cognition can be traced back to differences that were already in place when the participants were first surveyed as children.

This fascinating research has much more to tell us. But, as Deary pointed out, compared to the important influence of early years, “we are panning for dust, not big nuggets”. 

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