- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: Don’t Give It Another Thought

Conventional wisdom suggests that my lazy brain offers few benefits, but Harvard researchers believe it may be the key to a long life.

hand with illustration of brain

There’s a fairly strong consensus here in Geezerville that treating the brain like a muscle is the best way to ensure a long, lucid life. Hence the popularity of crossword and sudoku workouts, foreign-language exercises, and various online cognition regimens. Keep the mind working hard on a regular basis, the thinking goes, and it won’t let you down when some heavy lifting is required down the road.

I have mostly ignored this advice, partly due to the limited capacity of my cerebellum — which is filled to the brim with useless sports trivia — and partly because of my general ambivalence toward anything requiring strenuous mental effort.

Some might argue, I suppose, that writing and editing demands some level of brain fitness, though I’m sure there are plenty of readers I’ve accosted with my meandering prose over the years who would eagerly debate that proposition. Still, like a guy who counts walking to his mailbox every day as a moderate workout, I’m willing to accept the notion that playing with words occasionally rouses my frontal cortex from its neurological couch.

This nominal intellectual activity, however, pales next to the brain-flexing that My Lovely Wife routinely practices. When she’s not working her way through the New York Times crossword or the daily sudoku, she’s doing battle with some online word puzzle or researching arcane religious holidays for her annual calendar project. Meanwhile, you’ll generally find me most evenings lulling my brain into a comforting slumber with a healthy dose of televised sports.

To her credit, MLW has never suggested that I should ramp up my neurological workouts as a defense against premature cognitive dysfunction (she may assume it’s too late for that), so I will likewise avoid putting too fine a point on new research suggesting that a lazy brain may actually contribute to an extended lifespan.

Ina study published last week in the journal Nature, Harvard University scientists found that lower levels of neuronal activity seemed to extend the lives of lab mice, the roundworm C. elegans, and even humans. As Sharon Begley reports in STAT News, the initial results were so counterintuitive that geneticist Bruce Yankner, MD, PhD, and his team spent an additional two years of research to satisfy outside reviewers.

“If you say you have a cat in your backyard, people believe you,” Yankner told Begley. “If you say you have a zebra, they want more evidence.”

So Yankner’s crew inspected donated human brains that had been frozen to retain evidence of genetic activity and found that a specific gene, REST, was more active in the frontal cortex (site of higher-ordered thinking) of those who lived beyond the age of 85 than in those who’d died in their 60s and 70s. This made some sense: They had previously identified REST as a factor in preventing dementia.

“REST is involved in neuronal excitation, and is normally active during fetal brain development,” Yankner explained. “It usually gets turned off after that. But as the brain ages, it seems to turn back on again.”

Taking this knowledge back into the lab, the scientists increased the activity of the roundworm version of the REST gene in some C. elegans specimens. The worms lived four weeks, about a third longer than their usual lifespan. A similar experiment with lab mice produced similar results. Why this occurred remains a mystery, though. Earlier research has established that lower levels of neuronal activity trigger genes with anti-inflammatory properties, but there’s much more to learn on that front.

“I think they established that neuronal activity is a determinant of longevity,” said University of Crete aging expert Nektarios Tavernarakis, PhD, one of the study’s reviewers. “It’s definitely a surprising twist in the saga of aging, but it’s too early to talk about manipulating the human lifespan based on this. In my opinion, things are going to be more complicated.”

I did find some reassurance in Yankner’s study, especially his point that REST-induced brains do not actually impair the ability to think. A relaxed frontal cortex simply expends about the same amount of energy on a problem as someone who is much younger.

But, as Tavernarakis points out, it’s really not that simple. Which is also good news, in a way, because I’m not really interested in expending any energy to figure out how to adopt some combination of relaxation techniques to reliably keep my brain in its slacker state.

Besides, I’m pretty sure there’s a ballgame on tonight. That usually does the trick.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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