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Key Takeaways

  • High neuronal activity levels have been linked to a shorter lifespan.
  • Lower levels of brain activity have been, conversely, associated with increased longevity.
  • This association has been confirmed in several different organisms including worms, mice, and humans.
  • The REST gene is a major regulator of neuronal excitability that prevents excess activity in the neurons. Evidence indicates that people who managed to reach the age of 85 and beyond have a much more active REST gene than people who died in their 60s or 70s, suggesting that REST has a significant impact on longevity.
  • REST is initially active during fetal development, but then it turns off until a later stage in life. When it switches back on over the years, its activity contributes to the expected lifespan of its owner.
  • In the future, compounds that promote REST activation to reduce brain activity will likely be found.

Actions to Consider

  • Engage in activities that calm the brain and prevent excess neuronal activity. Yoga, breath work, and meditation are some of the most effective options!
  • The exact mechanism by which overexcited neurons reduce lifespan isn’t clear, but most likely it has something to do with stress. A state of neuronal calm has been reported to activate genes that protect the body from the detrimental action of stress.

A calmer brain may help you live longer

In a world where ”harder, better, faster, stronger” seems to be the go-to motto, you would expect that a more active brain would lead to more fulfillment, sense of purpose, and success and as a result, increased lifespan.

With this new Nature study, scientists confirmed just the opposite: it seems that reduced brain activity extends life. Let’s walk through how they came to that conclusion and what to do about it.

What is this study about?

Published in October 2019 in the Nature journal, this study revealed that there is a connection between high neuronal excitability and increased synaptic function—and a decrease in lifespan. The association has been confirmed in several different organisms including worms, mice, and humans.

Explaining the connection

The exact mechanism behind the lifespan-increasing effect of decreased brain activity is still unknown, but scientists believe it has something to do with stress.

A state of neuronal calm has been reported to activate genes that protect the body from the detrimental action of stress. In other words, maybe it’s not the decreased activity of the brain itself, but the anti-stress genes that are activated when the brain is calm.

One of the major factors that determine one’s baseline brain excitability is the REST gene that prevents excess activity in the neurons. Evidence indicates that people who managed to reach the age of 85 and beyond have a much more active REST gene than people who died in their 60s or 70s, suggesting that REST has a significant impact on longevity.

Scientists haven’t found an effective way to activate the REST gene yet.

So, should you think less?

The idea of decreased brain activity being able to boost lifespan is counter-intuitive, and it’s essential to understand it the right way. It’s not about thinking less or being cognitively inert.

It’s about using the resources of the brain in an optimal way.

Neuroimaging studies report that the brains of older people show a much higher level of activity than younger brains when they interact with a puzzle. This level of neuronal activity is excessive, much more than needed to solve the problem at hand.

Older people show a much higher level of activity than younger brains when they interact with a puzzle

In theory, this kind of excessive brain activity uses a lot of inner resources that the body could otherwise invest in fighting stress, fine-tuning its systems, or promoting regeneration.

Conclusion

The level at which your REST gene gets activated is an inherited trait, and there isn’t much we can do to change it at the moment. While scientists work on a way to fix that, there are a few lifestyle habits we can adopt to reduce excess brain activity.

For example, studies have reported that yoga and meditation are effective ways to reduce stress and inhibit excessive brain activity. Turn these activities into daily habits, and support your longevity by reducing the levels of stress in your life!

Link to the study:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1647-8

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