Keeping your brain active through brain games can stave off age-related memory loss, it’s true. But there’s a different kind of “brain activity” you’ll want to avoid for better longevity.
I’m talking about too much electrical activity in your brain. An overactive brain is linked to numerous disorders ranging from autism and epilepsy to Alzheimer’s disease.
Now a fascinating new study from Harvard reports how brain activity levels are so important to your overall health that they can increase—or decrease—your lifespan. Here’s a look at the new research and what it means for you.
What is an overactive brain? The amount of brain signaling in the form of electrical currents and transmitters is called neural activity, or brain activity. Your brain cells communicate via electrical impulses and are active all the time, even when you’re asleep.
Doctors measure electrical activity in the brain with small, metal discs (electrodes) attached to your scalp in an electroencephalogram (EEG) test. The activity shows up as wavy lines on an EEG recording.
If brain activity becomes overactive it could manifest as a muscle twitch or simply a change in thought or mood. Then again it could become more serious and lead to neurodegenerative disorders.
The Harvard Study, First of its Kind
In animals, neural activity is linked to aging, but there was no firm evidence in humans. To find out, Harvard researchers looked at brain tissue from the autopsies of hundreds of men and women aged 60 to 100 and beyond who died free from dementia.
What they discovered is new and unexpected.
Folks who lived beyond age 85 had strikingly lower expressions of genes that increase neural excitation, or brain activity, than those who died younger than age 80.
To see whether this brain activity causes the difference in lifespan rather than just being an effect of aging, Harvard researchers conducted a wide range of experiments on worms and mice.
These laboratory tests revealed neural activity does increase with age, and when neurons are stimulated the creatures have shorter lifespans. On the other hand, when researchers used a drug to calm brain activity, they lived longer.
The next step was to find what lead researcher Bruce Yankner, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, called the “CEO protein.”
You Need More REST to Calm Brain Activity
When I say REST, I don’t mean resting your body, although that’s important, too. I’m talking about a transcription protein factor called REST. Transcription factors control gene expression by switching them on and off. And REST is turning out to be the “CEO protein” that Harvard researcher Dr. Yankner was looking for.
Dr. Yankner and his team found when they over-expressed the REST protein in worms, it lowered nervous system activity and increased lifespan. When they did the opposite, lowering the REST protein, brain activity increased, and the animal’s lives were shortened.
But would they find the same results in people?
They studied brain samples from autopsies of centenarians, people who reached age 100 and beyond. The tests confirmed much higher levels of the REST protein than the scientists found in those who died over two decades earlier!
The Harvard study is the first study to demonstrate a link between brain activity and human longevity.
“An intriguing aspect of our findings,” said Professor Yankner, “is that something as transient as the activity state of neural circuits could have such far-ranging consequences for physiology and lifespan.”
Fellow geneticist and co-author Monica Colaiácovo added, “The possibility that being able to activate REST would reduce excitatory neural activity and slow aging in humans is extremely exciting.”
Dr. Yankner and his team are now searching for a suitable drug to boost REST, suppress brain activity and increase longevity. They hope a pill or injection will become available within the next decade.
But who wants to wait? Or take a drug that might have a number of negative side effects?
What You Can do Now to Balance Your Brain Activity
As to why lower brain activity increases lifespan, the scientists say the mechanism acts on a signaling pathway similar to one switched on by calorie restriction. Restricting the intake of calories is a well-known method of increasing lifespan in insects and animals. It’s been tested in humans, too, with mixed but generally favorable results.
A 2017 review of the effects of human calorie restriction noted that the only direct evidence for health benefits was “recorded from the members of the Calorie Restriction Society, who have imposed on themselves a regimen of severe CR (calorie restriction) with optimal nutrition (CRON), believing to extend in this way their healthy lifespan.”
By the way, the CRON diet is a low-fat, largely vegetarian diet that’s nutrient dense. A typical meal might consist of salad, lentils, brown rice, bulgur, a stalk of broccoli, and a glass of skimmed milk. Not exactly the most satisfying dinner.
Severe Calorie Restriction in Longevity
The review noted society members experienced reduced bone density yet had stronger bones. Members also maintained or improved their maximal aerobic capacity and enjoyed an increase in quality of life measures such as depression and overall physical function.
I take this research with a grain of salt since it’s self-reported by a group already convinced it works and is not the result of a blinded clinical study. Another important point: the man who created the CRON diet and followed it religiously with the hopes of living to 150 years of age, Roy Walford, sadly died at age 74 of a neurological disorder, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Harvard Doctor Looks to Yoga, Meditation as Good Longevity Habits
Dr. Yankner believes the findings from the Harvard study do raise the possibility that certain lifestyle habits can lower brain activity and prolong lifespan. Interestingly, the CRON diet wasn’t among them. Instead he believes practicing yoga and meditation could be helpful.
Dr. Yankner says hopefully his team’s work will one day reveal how “a person’s thoughts, personality and behavior affect their overall health and longevity.”
My takeaway: Severe caloric restriction is not sustainable for the average person. A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and healthy fats is a choice you have a better chance of sticking with. Also more achievable is moderate calorie restriction, such as the now-popular practice of doing all your eating in an eight hour span – for instance 10 AM to 6 PM – and abstaining from food the other 16 hours.
Yoga and meditation are certainly promising ways of improving health and longevity. They both have a wealth of proven health benefits, from reducing anxiety to improving cognition.
- Picca, A., et al. “Does eating less make you live longer and better? An update on calorie restriction.” Clinical Interventions in Aging. Volume 12: 1887-1902.