The downside to the ‘use it or lose it’ approach to a better brain

Use it or lose it. It’s brain health advice you hear often. In fact, I think I’ve doled it out a time or two.

But is it right?

Yes and no. There are plenty of studies that show “mind exercises” like computer games and crosswords can improve memory, reasoning and processing speed to some degree or another. But one of the more recent studies on the subject shows we shouldn’t put too much stock in preventing cognitive decline with mental exercise…

This study found that staying mentally active throughout your life will increase your overall cognitive capabilities. But that only means, when your mental faculties start to slip a bit with age, you’ll be starting from a higher point… and it will take you longer to bottom out, so to speak. It won’t, however, stop the decline from happening.

If that’s the case, buying a bunch of sudoku puzzles on your 50th birthday to protect yourself from cognitive decline isn’t a solid strategy.

But here’s the real kicker…

Brain exercise potentially has a negative side effect that’s far worse than the fact that it may not work…

It could shorten your life.

People with less brain activity live longer

A new study published in the journal Nature shows that extra active brain cells don’t make for an extra-long life.

In the study, Harvard researchers examined brain tissue from people who died in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They noticed that people who died before their mid-80s had less of a protein called REST in their brains. REST deactivates genes that promote brain activity. So, the less REST present in the brain, the more brain activity.

There’s no way to test REST levels in the brain when people are alive. So besides testing the brains of people who’d passed away, researchers also performed REST tests on roundworms and mice.

Roundworms with high REST levels had less brain activity and lived unusually long lives. When REST genes were disabled in roundworms, their brain activity went up and their lifespan shortened. Mice with less REST also had more active brains. They even had short bursts of seizure-like brain activity.

Does that mean an active brain is bad for your lifespan?

Not necessarily. But it does mean that brain activity is a balancing act. If you’re living an enjoyable and stimulating life, you’re going to have an active brain. But the old adage “too much of a good thing” applies to brain activity too.

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“I think the implication of our study is that with aging, there is some aberrant or deleterious neural activity that not only makes the brain less efficient but is harmful to the physiology of the person or the animal, and reduces life span as a result,” said Bruce Yankner, the Harvard researcher who led the study.

Maybe meditation and mindfulness are the answer?

As someone who’s experienced physical and emotional benefits from meditation and mindfulness practice, this study made me wonder…

Is mindfulness the answer to balancing excessive brain activity and living a long life?

When you practice mindfulness or meditate, your brain waves slow down. And research shows this can ease depression, anxiety and make your brain’s stress center less active.

Related: 12-minute meditation can save your memory

It’s no secret that stress has a negative effect on your mental and physical health. In fact, stress markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol increase the risk of many serious diseases. So, it would make sense, then, if people with calmer brains lived longer.

I have to warn you, though… the calm relaxed mind you can develop from meditation and mindfulness doesn’t happen the second you sit on a meditation cushion. Like anything, it takes commitment and practice before your mind starts responding to meditation. It’s like training a puppy. At first, your mind’s flitting from one thought to another and you leave your meditation session wondering if it was even worth it. Eventually, though, you’ll have more peaceful moments where your mind is quiet, and you feel good.

I’ve mentioned it before, but my favorite mindfulness teacher is Eckhart Tolle. When I read his books, listen to his talks and practice his meditations, it helps me slip into mindfulness more easily. Check out the videos on his YouTube channel or read one of his books if you haven’t already.

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Sources:

  1. Excessive brain activity linked to a shorter life — The Washington Post
  2. Regulation of lifespan by neural excitation and REST — Nature
  3. Protecting your brain: ‘Use it or lose it’ — ScienceDaily
  4. Your aging brain: Is it ‘use it or lose it’? — MedicalXpress
  5. What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain? — Scientific American
  6. Alpha Brain Waves Boost Creativity and Reduce Depression — Psychology Today
  7. When science meets mindfulness — The Harvard Gazette
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.