Brain Fitness: If You Don't Use It, Will You Lose It?

Thanks, Dr. Trevor Tebbs for this week's question about whether failure to use one's mind results in the cognitive deterioration. What's the answer to this question? YES. There is good evidence that the brain needs ongoing stimulation to preserve its function and to protect against injury. During development, the principle is also true; early deprivation affects intellectual development for years.

Dr. Marian Diamond conducted pioneering work showing that increases in cortical dendritic growth was at its greatest in the first 10 years of life - a big reason for why childhood intellectual development is so important.

From the Carolina Abecedarian project of preschool educational intervention for poor children, long-lasting benefits were noted into the young adult years in terms of reading and math achievement and admission to college.

More recent research has been even more encouraging about the importance of intellectual stimulation: enriched environments were seen to have protective or beneficial recovery effects on such diverse conditions as Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's Disease, Epilepsy, Stroke, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Fragile X.

The data are also encouraging for all of us adults with aging brains. If you look at the figure at right, it really is alarming. From Intellectual Development in Adulthood:

"Substantial intellectual changes within individuals occur only late in life and tend to occur for abilities that were less central to the individuals' life experiences and thus perhaps less practiced."

Fortunately, even in the area of aging, keeping one's mind active does seem to build up 'cognitive reserve' that will make it more resistant to cognitive decline with aging.

If you are over the age of 65, you can take the LEQ questionnaire for free here for free. It estimates complex mental activity over the lifespan (reading, writing, social activities, travel, occupation, etc.).

In the figure below, see how higher lifetime complex mental activities slowed the rate of hippocampal atrophy over three years (good thing you're reading this blog!)

Lifespan Mental activity predicts slower atrophy:

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