PhD, CPsychol, CSci, FBPsS, FHEA
Alan is a Research Leader and Associate Professor in Psychology, in the School of Social Sciences. He teaches on the BSc Psychology programmes (1st Year: Introduction to Psychology; 2nd Year: Research Methods and Analysis; 4th Year: Psychology of Ageing) and supervises undergraduate and postgraduate projects which focus on personality, cognitive abilities, health and wellbeing, and ageing.
Alan's research focuses on the identification of lifestyle and behavioural factors that predict healthy ageing, primarily cognitive ageing. His research examining interventions for cognitive ageing are conducted within The Ageing Lab.
With a background in Psychology, Alan's research focuses on the identification of lifestyle and behavioural factors that predict healthy ageing, primarily cognitive ageing. That is, the factors that might protect or harm the ageing brain. Alan is mainly interested in factors which are malleable, such as activity participation and exercise, social networks and support, and occupational characteristics and exposures. By being amenable to change, such factors are potential targets for interventions designed to reduce or delay the deleterious effect of ageing on cognitive abilities, and so have applied value in an increasingly aged society.
Much of Alan’s research has been conducted on the Lothian Birth Cohort studies based at the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh. The participants in these studies completed a mental ability test when they were aged 11, and decades later were recruited into follow-ups to examine the ageing process across their 70s, 80s and 90s. Alan has also worked with colleagues at the Center for Healthy Aging,University of Copenhagen, on the Glostrup 1914 Cohort, a sample recruited at age 50 and followed for up to 40 years.
While continuing to work on large, longitudinal studies of ageing, Alan is now developing a translational strand to his research at Heriot-Watt within The Ageing Lab. Based on his work identifying lifestyle factors that appear to protect cognitive abilities, he initiated his first intervention project, A Tablet for Healthy Ageing. The effect of engaging in a 10-week tablet computer training programme, which represented an entirely new and relatively demanding activity for participants, on cognitive abilities and mental wellbeing was assessed; outputs from the study are listed here.
Alan's latest research project began in July 2016. The Intervention Factory is a three year study which will test a range of activities within existing community-based programmes as potential interventions to reduce cognitive ageing in old age. Find out more at the The Ageing Lab website.
A full list of Alan's publications can be viewed here.
Alan joined Heriot-Watt in 2013 as a Lecturer/Assistant Professor, and is now an Associate Professor in Psychology (School of Social Sciences).
Alan graduated with a BSc (Hons.) in Biological Sciences: Psychology from the University of Edinburgh in 2002, and completed his MSc by Research (Psychology) the following year. He completed his PhD in 2007 funded by a Royal Society of Edinburgh/Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland Studentship. On completing his PhD, he held postdoctoral positions within the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, and has been a guest professor at the Center for Healthy Aging, University of Copenhagen, since 2011.
Alongside his research, Alan is involved in a number of public engagement activities, ranging from talks with older people’s groups to performances at the Edinburgh Fringe as part of Edinburgh Beltane’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. His 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe show titled “The Great British Brain Off”, received 4 stars from the Edinburgh Spotlight, and the trailer (shown below) was viewed over 2000 times between the and . The Great British Brain Off has since been performed as part of the Talk Science @ Irvine Bay programme, hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (you can access a report and video from the event), and also featured in the British Science Festival 2016. In August 2014, Alan packed the Stand in the Square at the Fringe to put "Brain Training on Trial". In the videos below, you can view the trailer for the show and hear his summary. To read a blog he has written on the subject, please visit http://researchtheheadlines.org/2014/09/09/brain-training-on-trial. He is returning to the Fringe in 2017 with "What Keeps You Sharp?", and you can view the trailer below.
Alan also Co-chairs the Young Academy of Scotland’s Research the Headlines blog. Using the blog, researchers discuss the way in which research is portrayed in the media (the good and the bad), to help the public understanding of research and the process that takes this from “lab to headline”. With funding from the British Academy, the group launched a competition to engage schoolchildren and undergraduate students with research and the media. Read more about the Rewrite the Headlines competition here.
In August 2015, Alan contributed to the first episode of a new BBC Radio 4 series "How to have a better brain", presented by Sian Williams. You can catch up on the series here, with a short extra clip exploring How walking can help ward off dementia. Discussions associated with the radio interview featured in one of the chapters of Sian's new book, Rise: Surviving and thriving after trauma.
Research in the media
The publication of "Sitting Time, Fidgeting, and All-Cause Mortality in the UK Women’s Cohort Study" in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine generated international media attention in September 2015, with coverage from outlets as diverse as the Washington Post and Huffington Post, to Grazia. A short summary of the findings can be found at: http://www.hw.ac.uk/news/fidgeting-modifies-effect-of-longer-sitting.htm.
When a paper examining associations between sexual behaviours and quality of life in older adults was published in the journal Age and Ageing in August 2015, a number of newspapers and websites featured the findings, including Reuters, Fox News and health24.com. You can read a piece about the study on the British Geriatrics Society blog, and a short summary of the findings at: http://www.hw.ac.uk/news/sexual-active-older-adults-report-better.htm.
In November 2014, the publication of "Occupational complexity and lifetime cognitive abilities" in the journal Neurology, was reported on BBC News Online, the Wall Street Journal, and others, and was discussed on BBC Radio 4's All in the Mind (clip available above). The press release can be viewed at: http://www.hw.ac.uk/news/complex-jobs-may-protect-thinking-skills-later-19935.htm. The findings were also included in a more recent Telegraph article (November 2016): "Brain gain: 10 ways to think yourself younger".
In October 2012, the publication of "Neuroprotective lifestyles and the aging brain: activity, atrophy and white matter integrity" in the journal Neurology attracted media attention in the UK and internationally. The paper reported an association between increased physical activity and better structural brain health (less atrophy and fewer white matter lesions). Outlets covering the story included the Wall Street Journal and the Scottish Daily Mail, with Professor Joanna Wardlaw and Dr Alan Gow giving separate interviews to BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio Newcastle. The associated online piece was the most shared BBC News article on the day of release (23 October) and the day after. Other media reports of the publication can be viewed at Canadian TV News, Men's Journal, the American Association of Retired Persons, and TIME.
Dr Ria Vaportzis (A Tablet for Healthy Ageing, funded by The Dunhill Medical Trust; The Intervention Factory, funded by Velux Stiftung)
Malwina Niechcial (The Intervention Factory, funded by Velux Stiftung)
Previous team members
Vivienne Macdonald (Research the Headlines, funded by The British Academy)
Ongoing PhD supervision
Lorraine Douglas (Second Supervisor; Principal Supervisor: Dr Lauren Potter)
Project title: Stress, coping and self-efficacy: design and evaluation of an intervention to support informal caregivers of people with dementia.
Completed PhD supervision
Mandy Nioi (Second Supervisor; Principal Supervisor: Dr Jenny Roe)
Project title: Evaluation of blue light exposure, illuminance level and the associations with sleep/wake patterns in two populations living with sensory impairment. Graduated 2016.