Longevity and the Brain

“Your brain’s health may be the most powerful indicator of how long you will live.”

I’m at the age where an article about longevity really gets my attention. So the National Geographic piece “How to take better care of your aging brain” by Michael S. Sweeney really caught my eye (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/longevity-life-brain-care-health-age?).

The article’s conclusion is based on studies with rats in their middle age and older, equivalent to human ages of between 60 and 90 years. Like most mammals, including us, these more-mature rats have brains that can be reshaped by new experiences, which scientists call plasticity. In other words, brains can change at any age.

But the enemy is time, which can work against brains in three different ways:  disease, disuse, and physical changes that come with aging itself. Disease can include strokes, cancerous tumors and dementia. Disuse causes neglected neural connections to fade, and can eventually break connections completely. (I am reminded of this every time I have to teach algebra.) Finally, aging itself prunes the brain’s networks, eliminating some neurons and leaving the remaining ones susceptible to the cumulative effects of exposure to natural chemicals.

So the secret to living longer is through stimulating challenges, especially robust exercise at least 20 minutes three times a week. And the best brain stimulation at any age is novelty, as in taking up new hobbies or through new experiences.

The good news is summarized in the article’s subtitle, “It’s never too late to change your habits and improve your brain function, researchers say—and it could be the key to a longer life.” So there is hope for all of us.

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