How does our intelligence change with age?


New findings revealed in a BBC documentary have shown how our thinking skills change through our life span.

The programme, which features Heriot-Watt University Professor Alan Gow, explores how gender and age can affect our intelligence and how our lifestyles can have benefits for brain health.

Devised by researchers at Imperial College, London, over 250,000 people around the UK took part in the Great British Intelligence Test, with the results being presented during the BBC’s Horizon programme by Dr Hannah Fry and Michael Mosley.

While not involved in the survey, Professor of Psychology, Alan Gow, was asked to comment on the findings and shed light on how other studies suggest we might protect our thinking skills with age.

Professor Gow said: “While the survey reported in the programme is large, we need to remember it’s cross-sectional so can’t consider ageing as such. From other studies that follow the same people over many years, or even decades, we know that many thinking skills are maintained throughout midlife, and some like our word skills often continue to develop into old age.”

Evidence shows that learning and engaging in something can new help maintain thinking skills and brain health. 

Physical activity and social connections also seem to be important in brain health.

Professor Gow continued: “A key message is that while getting older might be associated with some changes in thinking skills, we see variation from person to person. That variation encourages us to identify the things that might be particularly good (or indeed not so good) for our brain health. Various aspects of our lifestyles might be important and we’re continuing to research those things, from social engagement to physical activity. In our work in The Ageing Lab for example, we’re currently focussed on how engaging in new activities and learning experiences might be good for our thinking skills as we age”.

Professor Gow’s study exploring new activities and brain health is due to report later in the year. More details about research in The Ageing Lab can be found here:

You can view the full BBC Horizon programme here -


Susan Kerr

Media Relations Officer


T: 07933701010

COVID-19 help and advice

The University is monitoring the coronavirus COVID-19 guidance and acting on the latest official health and travel advice relevant to each campus in the UK, Dubai and Malaysia.

If you have any of the following symptoms you should book a test online or call 0800 028 2816 if unable to access the online service:

  • a new continuous cough
  • fever/high temperature
  • loss of, or change in, sense of smell or taste.

If you are a student or member of staff and have any concerns about symptoms or interaction with others please contact SafeGuarding through the SafeZone app or on 0131 451 3500.

More information can be found on our dedicated help site.