There are a lot of theories about the secret to a long life.
Dozens of research show the many benefits to remaining physically and mentally active as we get older — the level of brain activity influence life span.
A new study from the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School suggests the secret to living longer may lie in the level of brain activity.
The authors linked a long life to a quieter brain — keep calm and carry on living a little longer, the research found. Excessive electrical activity in the brain was linked to shorter life spans. An overworked brain may hasten the aging-related decline in memory and thinking skills.
Excessive brain activity is common in the digital age — rushing from one task to another, constantly looking for something to stimulate us, whether that’s a TV show or the notifications on our phone.
“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,” says Bruce Yankner, senior study author and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging.
In the study, the researchers examined hundreds of donated healthy brains of older adults, people who died between 60 and 100 years old and were “cognitively intact.”
The study revealed a surprising and shocking difference: people between the ages of 85 and 100 years had significantly less expression of genes linked to neural overactivity than those who died decades earlier (between 60 and 80).
“Our study raises the possibility that modulating excitation state can affect lifespan,” Yankner said.
“The thing that is super unexpected is . . . limiting neural activity is a good thing in healthy aging. It’s very counterintuitive,” says Michael McConnell, a neuroscientist on the Lieber Institute for Mind Growth.
The line between normal brain activity and over-excitement still remains blurred. Working out your brain helps build new neural networks and activates neural growth factors that are positive, says Yankner.
These activities aren’t likely the same as deleterious brain activity, which manifests in things like muscle twitches, mood changes, seizures, Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder, and other neurological disorders, he adds.
Yankner is quick to caution people from jumping the gun around the study’s findings. Professor Yankner said: “It’s not yet clear whether or how a person’s thoughts, personality or behavior affect their longevity.
“What sometimes gets lost in the coverage of aging research are the few things you can do for which there is really strong evidence are good for aging,” Yankner says.
“I think overactivity, out-of-control excitation — it’s not good for the brain. You want the neurons to be active, when and where you want them to be active, not to be just generally firing off,” mentioned Cynthia Kenyon, VP of Growing Old Analysis at Calico Labs.
The good news is the decline associated with brain activity is preventable.
The solution to an overworked brain is about altering your behavior in simple ways — just being conscious of moments of hyperactivity and slowing down or shifting your habits in a way that calms you down.
“If work is grinding you down, interfering with sleep, and forcing you to push aside fun, paying attention now to your mental, physical, and emotional health may help keep your mind sharp as you get older,” writes Patrick J. Skerrett, editor of the Harvard Heart Letter.
Start appreciating the moments of stillness in your life — plan to disconnect and make time for yourself, sit with a book and just read, draw something, write a letter, journal. Or better yet, sit quietly and “watch” the thoughts that drift through your mind while you do some deep breathing.
Keeping that mental stillness and physical state of calm takes practice— so prioritize downtime. Put in on your schedule. If you commit to doing one thing daily that promotes you relaxing and being more present and in your body, not your brain, you will see change.
Just start there and know that it’s not lazy — it’s taking care of your brain and your emotion and physical well-being. Perhaps it’s the small-scale, daily choices that will make the difference for your mental health.