“Use it or lose it.” This old saying applies to many things, but it especially applies to our brains. Most of us know that it is very important to keep our minds active in order to keep them working properly.
Think about it: if you learn a skill, let’s say drawing portraits, for example, you have to practice in order to stay proficient. It’s possible to still be able to draw a decent portrait years after you put down the pencil if you remember the rules of how it’s done, but you likely won’t be nearly as good at it as someone who learned the same rules and draws a portrait each day.
We all want our brains to stay in tip-top shape, and therefore, we need to use them continuously. Not only does engaging your mind help you to retain skills and abilities, new research has found that it may also help protect you from the frightening cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease.
The research, performed by a team from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and recently presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto, Canada, found that mentally stimulating careers could protect the brain from dementia even if one was eating an unhealthy diet. Previous research has linked dietary factors such as obesity to a higher risk of dementia, and a healthy diet to a lower risk of this debilitating condition.
According to Dr. Doug Brown, the Alzheimer’s Society’s director of research and development:
“People who regularly challenge their brains through education, work and leisure activities tend to have lower rates of dementia in later life. This study broadens out our understanding to suggest these activities could help to protect the brain by compensating against the negative impact of an unhealthy diet.”
For their research, the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center team analyzed brain scans of 284 individuals who were categorized as high risk for Alzheimer’s disease. They specifically looked at regions known as “white matter hyperintensities,” which are parts of the brain linked to Alzheimer’s. Results showed that people who worked in socially engaged and mentally stimulating careers were at the lowest risk, despite dietary factors.
The careers that were found to be the most protected against the development of Alzheimer’s included those in the fields of engineering, law and education. Careers which did not include social interaction or mental stimulation were found to be the least protective.
On this discovery, the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer, Maria C. Carrillo, stated:
“These new data add to a growing body of research that suggests more stimulating lifestyles, including more complex work environments with other people, are associated with better cognitive outcomes in later life. As each new study emerges, we further understand just how powerful cognitive reserve can be in protecting the brain from disease.”
As exciting as this is, Dr. Brown cautioned that an engaging career in law or engineering does not mean you’ll be safe eating junk food. He explained:
“This [the study results] shouldn’t become an excuse to continue eating stodgy and sugary foods, though. Getting a healthy balanced diet that’s low in red meat and high in fruit and veg is still one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia throughout life.”
It follows that if you maintain a healthy diet throughout your life, and engage your mind and social skills frequently, you’ll have a great shot at protecting your brain from cognitive decline. If your career isn’t exactly social or mentally stimulating, however, never fear. There are plenty of ways to engage your mind and socialize outside of work hours.
Take a class in something you’ve always wanted to learn. Travel and visit new places. Read more books — join a book club, perhaps. The possibilities are endless and rewarding.
— Tanya Rakhmilevich