Exercise Your Brain—Why Lifelong Learning Keeps You Healthy

Posted by on Wed, Sep 3, 2014

Why Lifelong Learning Keeps You Healthy


Everyone, it seems, has a theory about what you should do to live a longer, healthier life.

A septuagenarian swears a walk to the mailbox and 20 minutes a day on the treadmill got her to where she is. An octogenarian gives all the credit to his daily glass of bourbon and a cigarette at dusk. Then there are those who promote a steady dose of ginseng.

If only science could settle the argument, right? Perhaps it finally has.

Lifelong learning may be the key to living a longer, healthier life, according to the results of a new study by the Mayo Clinic Foundation in Rochester, Minnesota.

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A Brain Game a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

“In terms of preventing cognitive [mental] impairment, education and occupation are important,” said Dr. Prashanthi Vemuri, the study’s lead author and a professor of radiology at the Mayo Clinic Foundation, in a news release about the study. “But so is intellectually stimulating activity during mid- to late life.”

Dr. Vemuri and her colleagues studied 2,000 men and women ranging in age from 70 to 89 between 2004 and 2009. The goal of the study was to gain a better understanding of whether intellectual engagement—or “exercising the mind,” as the study’s authors called it—had any bearing on whether a person developed age-related dementia.

Of the participants, 1,700 were deemed “cognitively normal” at the study’s outset. Nearly 300 had “mild cognitive impairment,” which means their thinking and memory abilities were slightly impaired due to the natural aging process, early onset dementia, or other factors.

Each participant was given a score based on his or her past academic and professional endeavors and achievements. They then completed questionnaires that pinpointed how much they engaged in intellectually challenging activities during the 15-year period starting when they were 50 and ending when they were 65.

Finally, all participants were tested to determine whether or not they carried a specific variant of the APOE gene, which is widely considered to be a significant risk factor for developing late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

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Learning Delays Dementia by Nine Years

Over the next five years, the researchers tracked the participants’ cognitive abilities and watched closely to see who suffered from deteriorating thinking and memory skills.

What they found was that those who had more lifelong learning experiences, even among the participants with the APOE gene, saw their risk of developing dementia significantly delayed—by nine years, on average—when compared to those who had less lifelong learning experience.

The study also showed that every participant who actively engaged in lifelong learning—regardless of his or her level of education or career success—had lower risks of developing dementia than participants who led less intellectually challenging lives leading up to the study.

“This is very encouraging news, because even if you don’t have a lot of education, or get exposure to a lot of intellectual stimulation during non-leisure activity, intellectual leisure activity later in life can really help,” said Dr. Vemuri.

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It’s Never Too Late to Learn

The study, which has been published in JAMA Neurology by the American Medical Association, has been called “significant” and “encouraging” by doctors and researchers focused on understanding how people can delay the onset of dementia in the country’s increasingly aging population.

In 2000, there were more than 35 million “senior citizens” (people who are 60 or older) in the United States. That number, according the U.S. Census Bureau, is expected to double by 2035.

This study shows that lifelong learning of any kind, including craft activities, arts, group activities, and computer work, have a profound impact on the brain. The study, however, does not show a direct cause-and-effect relationship between lifelong learning and delayed cognitive deterioration. But when it comes to living longer, healthier lives, reading, crafting, painting, and engaging with others in intellectually stimulating discussions is likely more effective than cigarettes and bourbon. And it demonstrates that it is never too late to start exercising the brain!


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