Published on: March 11, 2012
by Timi Gustafson R.D. for Seattle PI
Exercising the brain as much as exercising the body to keep both fit and healthy has become the new mantra for the aging baby boomer generation. Scientists seem to agree. Studies show that people who were cognitively active throughout their lives are less likely to experience mental decline as they grow older.
Age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease is the most feared health condition among older Americans today, second only to cancer. It is also one of the most significant health threats of the 21st century, according to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Harvard School of Public Health that was first published at an international conference on the subject in Paris, France, last year.
The causes for Alzheimer’s are not yet fully understood and there are currently no effective treatments that can halt or reverse the progressively debilitating disease. Researchers have suggested that diet and exercise as well as mental stimulation may serve as preventive measures, but there is not enough scientific evidence that these have a significant impact.
There are a number of health conditions, however, believed to promote the development of dementia. One is inflammation of the brain caused by stress hormones such as cortisol, which is toxic to nerve cells in the brain and especially to those responsible for memory. Another contributing factor is cardiovascular disease because it can prevent the brain from receiving sufficient blood supply, thereby damaging it.
A more controversial suggestion is that education, or lack thereof, can make a difference in the likelihood of someone becoming demented later in life. Obviously, the notion that the well-educated have a better shot at staying mentally healthy while the unschooled run the risk of losing their minds is hard to accept because it sounds elitist and snobbish. That makes it difficult to raise the issue without provoking strong reactions. Still, we have to look at the evidence.
Neuroscientists say that the reason why education can help prevent or at least slow down an aging person’s cognitive decline is that during learning processes structural changes in the brain’s neural network take place as neurons connect with one another. This is only possible because the central nervous system is in constant dynamic flux, which enables it to respond and adapt to changing requirements.
The more learning experiences we undergo over the years, the more neural connections we develop in the brain. This does not only happen when we learn something brand new – like a foreign language or a computer program – but even when we do routine work or play our favorite games. The already established neural connections just multiply as we repeat similar mental processes.
That is why most tasks become easier to master over time, which is what learning is. This process is called “neural redundancy,” meaning that many neural connections become redundant through repetition – but not obsolete because when some connections get damaged or degenerate, others take over and continue to function in their place. In other words, the more “redundant” connections we develop over a lifetime through constant learning, the less likely we will lose our skills and abilities as we age.
So the question arises whether we can avoid the decline of our mental capacities by, let’s say, learning Mandarin, reading philosophical books or mastering programming software? Not if you start late, scientists say. Being mentally active from early on and throughout life, not just when you reach old age, is what makes the difference, according to Dr. William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley. What you do at 40 or 50 is more important than what you take on at 75.
“Older people seem to have less efficient brains [than younger people] and have to work their brains harder,” said Dr. Jagust in an interview on the subject with the New York Times (3/8/2012). “People who stay cognitively active may be able to use their brains more efficiently,” he added.
Does it then still make sense to strive for mental fitness when you are already approaching retirement age or even later? Within limits, yes, Dr. Jagust agrees. Memory usually diminishes with age, even with people who do not have dementia, he said. It’s more about preserving the abilities you have than acquiring new ones, although both go hand in hand.
For those looking for learning opportunities in their later years, there is no shortage of programs offered by universities and colleges throughout the country. And these are not the only options. Educational travel programs are becoming extremely popular among retirees and the travel industry is more than happy to accommodate them.
They say, a good education is wasted on the young – well, it’s certainly not wasted on those who see lifelong learning as yet another fountain of youth. It may not be able to prevent mental decline in the end, but, in the meantime, it clearly does no harm.
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