Want to live longer? Quiet your mind.
There are a lot of theories about the secret to a long life. A great deal of research reveals the many benefits of remaining physically and mentally active as we age. Simply put, experts know that brain activity influences life span.
In a nuanced twist, however, a new study from the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School suggests the secret to living longer may lie in the level and type of brain activity.
The authors found that excessive electrical activity in the brain was linked to shorter life spans. Behaviors like multitasking and the consistent consumption of multiple forms of media without planned downtime or breaks can overstimulate the brain. An overworked brain may hasten the aging-related decline in memory and thinking skills. By contrast, the study linked long life to a quieter brain: Keep calm and carry on living a little longer, the research found.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Excessive brain activity is common in the digital era. People of all ages find themselves rushing from one task to another, constantly looking for stimulation, be it a TV show or the notifications on their phone. The desire to feel connected is increasing among people of all age groups. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, 72% of adults in the United States use some type of social media. The research also found that social media account ownership has risen among the over-65 crowd from 12% in 2011 to 37% in 2018. Multiple streams of media keep us in a constant state of multitasking, making it difficult for our brains to concentrate, single-task, or take a break.
“The thing that is super unexpected is… limiting neural activity is a good thing in healthy aging.”
In the Harvard study, the researchers examined hundreds of donated healthy brains of older adults—people who died between the ages of 60 and 100 and were “cognitively intact.”
The study revealed a surprising and shocking find when comparing the genes of older and younger participants: People who died between the ages of 85 and 100 years old had significantly less expression of genes linked to neural overactivity than those who died decades earlier (between the ages of 60 and 80). “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. “Our study raises the possibility that modulating excitation state can affect life span.”
“The thing that is super unexpected is… limiting neural activity is a good thing in healthy aging, ” says Michael McConnell, a neuroscientist at the Lieber Institute for Mind Growth. It may be counterintuitive to slow down mental stimulation, but it’s the best way to keep a healthy brain. Strive for balance: Keep it active, but take time to relax and quiet your mind more often.
The line between normal brain activity and overexcitement remains blurred. “It’s complicated, because using your brain for novel functions, like learning a new language, playing a new instrument, or doing activities you haven’t done before, is considered a positive thing for learning and memory,” Yankner says. These activities aren’t likely the same as deleterious brain activity, which manifests in things like muscle twitches, mood changes, seizures, Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, and other neurological disorders, he adds.
“I think overactivity, out-of-control excitation — it’s not good for the brain,” explains Cynthia Kenyon, vice president of aging research at Calico Labs. “You want the neurons to be active when and where you want them to be active, not to be just generally firing off.”
The good news is the decline associated with brain activity is preventable.
The solution to an overworked brain comes in altering your behavior in simple ways, becoming conscious of moments of hyperactivity, and slowing down or shifting your habits in ways that calm you.
“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.
So, what can you do if all of this sounds familiar? Start appreciating the moments of stillness in your life. Plan to disconnect and make time for yourself. Sit with a book and read, draw, write a letter, or journal. Or better yet, sit quietly and “watch” the thoughts that drift through your mind while you practice deep breathing.
Safeguarding that mental stillness and the physical state of calm takes practice, so prioritize the downtime. Put it on your schedule. If you commit to doing one thing daily that helps you relax and become more present in your body and not your brain, you will boost your chance of living a long and healthy life.