I’m often asked what can be done to improve the likelihood that your brain will remain healthy throughout life. After all, health without awareness is pointless to most of us. Of course we know to optimize our diet, to stop smoking, control our weight, and exercise. But you may be surprised to know that there is something that trumps all of these.
In addition to the preceding must-do list, there is another element that is key in your brain health protocol: lifelong learning. As a matter of fact, a recent study indicated that higher education is associated with a decrease in years lived with memory impairment, a fact that is much more significant if you are a person of color. For white men and women, higher education reduces living with memory challenges from 2.7 to 1.1 years and from 3.8 to 1.9 years respectively. For black men and women, the effect of higher education reduces years with memory impairment from 6.8 to 3.2 and from 8.2 to 4.0 years. (1)
Higher education definitely helps to retain memory. It creates higher brain reserve and a higher degree of being able to change thought patterns and adapt. This turns out to be protective as we age. It doesn’t change the rate at which we decline. Rather, it sets us at a higher brain capacity as the starting point. (2)
It’s not only having a higher starting point due to receiving a higher education; it’s also participating in lifelong learning. This means regularly engaging in new activities, learning new skills, and doing things differently. Perhaps this means gardening or learning an instrument or a new language. It could mean learning a new culture, or hanging out with people who are different from you.
Let’s look at an experiment with mice. Mice are chosen because over time we’ve come to realize that understanding what affects a mouse brain allows us to predict what may affect our brain. When mice were exposed to either impoverished environments, socially enhanced environments, socially plus physically enhanced environments, or complete enrichment (enriched social, physical, and learning environments) only those who had experienced all three conditions had enhanced brain health. Amazingly, this wasn’t due to decreasing inflammation or stress. It was due to lifelong learning. (3)
So, you want to save your brain. Seek a higher education and continue learning throughout your entire life.
(1) Mieke Reuser, Frans J. Willekens, and Luc Bonneux Higher education delays and shortens cognitive impairment. A multistate life table analysis of the US Health and Retirement Study Eur J Epidemiol. 2011 May; 26(5): 395–403.
(2) L.B. Zahodne, MS,M.M. Glymour, ScD, C. Sparks, BS, D. Bontempo, PhD, R.A. Dixon, PhD, S.W.S. MacDonald, PhD, and J.J. Manly, PhD Education Does Not Slow Cognitive Decline with Aging: 12-Year Evidence from the Victoria Longitudinal Study J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2011 November; 17(6): 1039–1046.
(3) Cracchiolo JR, Mori T, Nazian SJ, Tan J, Potter H, Arendash GW. Enhanced cognitive activity–over and above social or physical activity–is required to protect Alzheimer’s mice against cognitive impairment, reduce Abeta deposition, and increase synaptic immunoreactivity. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2007 Oct;88(3):277-94.