Sounds like an ad for the latest and greatest “improve your memory” supplement found on Dr. Oz to boost your brain power.
Luckily, the answer has no purchase required and lies in the title. Yep…read this.
The brain, like our muscles, is a use-it-or-lose-it organ. You need to challenge it every single day and push the limits of your learning every day. That means reading my blog articles (ok, so maybe that’s self-serving, but it IS true…) every day.
Better yet, it means challenging what you know or challenging what someone else knows that you think is wrong based on your knowledge and experience (that’s a hint to leave a comment at the end of this blog article debating on whether lifelong learning protects the brain).
Cognitive thought increases blood flow to the brain. Blood flow to the brain brings nutrients. Nutrients allow your brain to function at full capacity. It is already well accepted that higher education levels lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, so this fits.
All this brings us to this particular article. And I hope you’re strapped in cause this is about to get interesting. Researchers followed a group of older adults over the course of some 6 years with annual cognitive testing. At the end of the study, 294 participants had died and had his or her brain looked at under a microscope (surprisingly, no one volunteered earlier) for signs of age related damage to the brain. This included:
- Chronic gross infarcts (basically large areas of brain damaged tissue from strokes).
- Chronic microscopic infarcts (same thing, just smaller).
- Neocortical Lewy bodies (regions of clumped together, damaged brain tissue).
- β-amyloid burden and tau-positive tangle density (both proteins associated with Alzheimer’s).
Here’s where it gets interesting. They then compared the participant’s self-reported late life (as in during the course of the study) and early life engagement in cognitive stimulating activities. Here’s what they found:
- More frequent late-life and early-life cognitive activity led to slower cognitive decline.
- As far as the early-life–activity was concerned, the most important timeframes were childhood and middle age.
- Luckily, young adulthood cognitive activity was not associated with brain protection (maybe this was just because we don’t engage our brain at all during this time??).
Interestingly, the damage found in the brain and the cognitive reserve were independent of one another. I’ve got some ideas on this…
It may be possible that childhood cognitive activity increases the overall capacity of the brain to learn and grow, and this protection is lifelong. Then, later in life, this same type of activity will help the remaining cells that aren’t damaged function optimally. So basically, build it while you’re young and protect it when you’re older and damn the college years.