Older brains become more active when trying to get things done. The question is whether that activity is a good thing and improved performance or a bad thing and gets in the way. A new study shed’s light on that question to support the idea that increased activation is good and helps the brain succeed. Approaches to maintain brain fitness can help ensure an active and alert brain in older years.
Copyright © 2008 BrainFit For Life
Recent advancements in brain imaging show us that older people use more of their brain to perform tasks than younger people do. Scientists interpret this to mean one of two opposite things:
First, older people recruit more brain activity to do the same things in order to compensate for the degeneration of specific brain circuits that can no longer get the job done by themselves. This is the compensation hypothesis. Think of it like one brain region asking for help from another brain region in order to do something that, in its younger days, it could do on its own.
Second, the older brain may become ‘over-activated’ when trying to perform a task because it doesn’t do as good of a job at assigning the task to a specific region. This is the de-differentiation hypothesis. Think of this explanation as different brain regions being unsure whose job it is to do something and then getting in each other’s way.
Do older brains cooperate or compete?
A Belgium group used an elegant approach, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, to try to figure out which one was correct. The first hypothesis predicts that increased brain activation is a sign of participation, so should improve performance. The second hypothesis predicts increased activation is due to competition, so should decrease performance.
Researchers asked younger (20–25-year-old) and older (62–72-year-old) participants to perform a simple motor task while the investigators watched their brain activity. Participants simply moved their hands and feet in the same direction (easy task) or in opposite directions (harder task) while undergoing a brain scan to determine which brain regions became active. In the end, the older folks that performed better had more active brain regions, supporting the first hypothesis. The increased activity in older brains, while performing a task, appears due to participation between different regions.
Tying it back to lifestyle
This study is important because it supports the notion of cognitive reserve and EPIC performance that we have discussed in previous articles. To give a brief re-cap, the more you learn and experience in life, the more connections you make in your brain, and the more easily it will be to recruit other brain regions to get things done.
When you give yourself different experiences, you force your brain to look at new situations from different perspectives. This may help ‘link-up’ brain regions and make it easier for them to communicate with each other as you age, at a time when they become more dependent upon each other.
If you create enough different brain connections throughout your life by committing to life-long learning, you may protect yourself from losing mental performance as you age. Even though your brain will inevitably age, you ensure that the different regions cooperate with each other when necessary and keep your mental capabilities sharp.
The best way to do this is to adhere to the four cornerstones of brain fitness that we have discussed in the past.
1. Feed your brain healthy foods, as they are the raw materials for building brain circuits.
2. Exercise your body since it improves the blood supply to your brain.
3. Exercise your brain by continually learning new things and challenging your mind.
4. Get plenty of rest and sleep to allow your brain to rebuild and regenerate.
Boosting the odds to maintain life-long brain fitness is simple. You don’t have to understand all the science that supports these lifestyle choices, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.