Smarter People Live Longer

The worst thing you can do for your brain is nothing. If you’re not busy improving your brain health, you’re letting it decline.

For instance, as I’ve often pointed out, physical activity protects your brain.1When you jog, play tennis, lift weights or engage in other exercise you increase the blood supply to the brain and boost its function. If you just sit around the house all day, the brain’s blood supply suffers.

But there’s something else you should periodically pick up besides weights, a tennis ball or other exercise equipment. . .

A book.

Challenge your brain and it gets stronger. Give it too much time off, and it may atrophy and go on permanent vacation.

IQ and Survival

Some of the first medical investigations into how the brain affects health, longevity and memory-loss looked at IQ and life expectancy. The research demonstrated that people with higher IQs tend to live longer.

For instance, a 70-year study in Scotland that involved 1,000 people clearly found that intelligence promotes longevity.2

More recently, a study in Israel showed that people with higher IQs have brains that contain increased levels of a substance made by the body called activity-dependent neuroprotective protein (ADNP). ADNP, say the researchers, helps protect the brain’s neurons against falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.3

It’s Never Too Late to Exercise Your Brain

Now if you enter your later years without having spent much time engaged in mind-challenging activities, it’s not too late, researchers say. Exercising your brain and engaging it in mentally taxing pursuits help it age better.

Late-life mental diversions still produce benefit even if they don’t offer all the advantages of those in early childhood – nor as much as your inborn smarts or the benefits of exercising your brain throughout adulthood.

According to a study at UCLA, tackling a highbrow book, learning a new language, or trying to solve a difficult mental puzzle can stimulate a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus. When activated, this rather small, and blue-shaded, section of the brain stem secretes norepinephrine, a powerful neurotransmitter that sharpens memory, attention and cognition.

The distribution of this neurotransmitter is aided by the fact that neurons from the locus coeruleus are linked to other parts of the brain by way of branching axons that help control blood vessel activity.

The California researchers note that norepinephrine in the brain may help fend off Alzheimer’s disease by lowering inflammation and dampening excessive stimulation from other neurotransmitters.4

Researcher Mara Mather says that norepinephrine levels go up when you engage in a mentally demanding activity like playing a difficult piece of music or solving a word puzzle.

“Activation of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system by novelty and mental challenge throughout one’s life may contribute to cognitive reserve,” says Mather.

Cognitive reserve is the term used to describe the extra brain power and brain tissue you possess that gives you a cushion against the loss of neurons we naturally experience with advancing age.

A European study of more than 2,000 older adults supports Mather’s opinion. This study found that while a high IQ earlier in life provides cognitive reserve that protects aging brains, mental stimulation in “leisure activities even in old age may lead to further enrichment effects and thereby may be related to better cognitive functioning.” 5

The message of these studies is simple: For a better brain, keep broadening your mental horizons. Otherwise, you may find your memory prematurely shrinking.