By Korinne Nicolas

The University of Newcastle’s Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory (FNL) has been studying cognitive decline in ageing and the factors that may contribute to and speed up this process.

We know cognitive ability does change as we get older – specifically ageing effects our ability to think flexibly and come up with problem-solving strategies. These abilities are the first to decline, beginning in late adulthood.

We believe we can slow the process of this decline by looking after our physical health, like being a healthy weight, not smoking, exercising regularly and staying social with friends and family. This means taking care of your body is also helping take care of your brain. People who take care of their health show better cognitive ability as they age. Studies have also shown an increase in cognitive ability with exercise and diet.

So it’s not simply chronological ageing that makes our minds slow, but instead it is our brain’s health as we age. People who make healthy lifestyle choices and keep chronic illnesses well controlled, by, for example, taking prescribed medications may have greater levels of cognitive ability than those who do not.

Our lab has been working with stroke clinicians to understand what leads to cognitive decline following a transient ischemic event or a minor stroke. Many people who have had a minor stroke mention they become mentally tired quickly and have difficulties with memory and problem-solving skills.  Early findings have suggested that people with minor stroke who have otherwise healthy brains show no differences in measures of cognitive ability when compared to people with healthy normal-ageing brains. We are beginning to find, however, that people with particular vascular risk factors that cause poor brain health, such as high blood pressure or reduced heart function show a greater reduction in cognitive ability over time.

Our lab is now investigating specific brain mechanisms responsible for cognitive changes that may be affected by vascular risk factors or minor strokes. These findings will be available by the end of 2019.

Watch this space.