According to a study by Nature, extended longevity in humans is dynamically regulated by the excitatory–inhibitory balance of neural circuits using a protein called REST.
Simply said, one key to a longer life is a quieter brain without too much neural activity.
“Use it or lose it” has dominated thinking on how to protect the aging brain.
“The completely shocking and puzzling thing about this new paper is that limiting neural activity is a good thing in healthy aging,” said Michael McConnell, a neuroscientist at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development
What does brain research show?
Researchers at Harvard Medical School analyzed brain tissue by people ranging in age from their 60s and 70s to centenarians who lived to be 100 or older.
They found people who died before their mid-80s had lower levels in their brains of a protein REST that packs genes involved in sparking brain activity, compared to the very oldest people.
“You want the neurons to be active, when and where you want them to be active, not to be just generally firing off,” said Cynthia Kenyon, vice president of aging research at Calico Labs.
Bruce Yankner, a professor of genetics and neurology at Harvard Medical School who led the work, said: “I think the implication of our study is that with aging, there is some abnormal 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,” Yankner said.
Thinking affects the aging brain but how does aging affects thinking?
Some changes in thinking are common as people get older. For example, older adults may have:
- Increased difficulty finding words and recalling names
- More problems with multi-tasking
- Mild decreases in the ability to pay attention
Aging may also bring positive cognitive changes. People often have more knowledge and insight from a lifetime of experiences. Research shows that older adults can still:
- Learn new things
- Create new memories
- Improve vocabulary and language skills
As a person gets older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain.
- Certain parts of the brain shrink, especially those important to learning and other complex mental activities.
- In certain brain regions, communication between neurons (nerve cells) can be reduced.
- Blood flow in the brain may also decrease.
- Inflammation, which occurs when the body responds to an injury or disease, may increase.
It is not clear why some people think well as they get older while others do not. One possible reason is “cognitive reserve,” the brain’s ability to work well even when some part of it is disrupted. People with more education seem to have more cognitive reserve than others.
Overthinking? Not a good idea
The answer is: All the time.
Overthinking is a common problem, but when it gets out of hand it can lead to sleep disruption, “analysis paralysis,” and even threaten mental health. It’s also a difficult one to diagnose, let alone cure.
What most self-help advice says is to scrap the negative thoughts and double down on the positive thoughts. On the surface, this sounds like good advice. But the truth is that when you overuse your brain, for positive or negative, it can get clogged just like a drain. The result? Foggy thinking. Which leads to bad decision- making.
You can decide what thoughts to ignore. You can decide to live in the present moment — where you don’t have time to think, only to experience.
Here’s a four-step process to stop overthinking:
- Raise your awareness (about thinking too much) throughout the day.
- Start observing your thoughts. Every time you begin a thought, don’t follow through on it.
- Limit your thinking to dedicated times. Give yourself a specific amount of time — say, 15 minutes. What we’re trying to stop is the constant thinking.
- Enjoy your life. No matter how much you want to achieve in the future, and how much you’ve suffered in the past, appreciate that you are alive now.