The busy brain

Focuses on a study which suggests that lifelong mental activity may partially halt the process of brain atrophy which occurs with aging. How a team of psychology professors gave their fellow academics a five-part mental workout in order to test whether a busy brain can ward off deterioration; Comparison of results from young, middle-aged, and senior faculty participants.

By PT Staff, published March 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Use It or Lose It

If the human body came with an owner's manual, one of the primary recommendations would be use it or lose it: inactive muscles wither, underexercised hearts grow feeble. Aging brains atrophy as well--but a recent study suggests that lifelong mental activity can partially halt the process.

To test whether a busy brain wards off deterioration, a team of psychology professors put their fellow academics through a five-part mental workout and compared how young, middle-aged, and senior faculty performed.

First, the bad news. The senior faculty's performance on a reaction-time test (pressing a key as soon as a computer flashed the word "go") demonstrated that neurons slow down as they age--and studying particle physics for 40 years won't help. Older professors also had more trouble matching pairs of names or faces.

But the over-60 crowd fared just as well as their younger col-leagues--and far better than non-professors of the same age--when asked to remember details of an informational paragraph about tribal cultures or atmospheric gases. And they did an equally fine job remembering the order in which 15 words or pictures were presented. Performance on both tests normally sags with age.

The final test, in which subjects pointed to previously unchosen patterned squares in a continually reshuffled array, produced a split decision. Older professors made more errors than the juniors and just as many mistakes as same-age controls. But they improved slightly on a second trial, while performance of the older controls declined.

"No matter how mentally active you are, you're going to slow down," says University of California at Berkeley psychologist Arthur Shimamura, Ph.D. But a brain kept busy may better compensate for age-related decline.