- Newer research links “quiet” brains with longevity.
- Researchers theorize that a less active brain uses less of the body’s energy.
- Experts say there are a number of ways to calm your brain, including meditation, active listening, and mindful eating.
Everyone wants to stay mentally sharp as they get older — and it stands to reason that one way to do this is to maintain an active brain.
But new research suggests that less may be more when it comes to your brain activity.
In a study published in the medical journal Nature, researchers from Harvard Medical School report that a calm brain with less neural activity could lead to a longer life.
After analyzing donated brain tissue from people who died at ages from 60 to more than 100, researchers said they noticed that the longest-lived people had lower levels of genes related to neural activity.
A protein, REST, that suppresses neural activity was found to be associated with neural activity and mortality.
In experiments on worms and mammals, boosting REST led to lower neural activity and longer lifespans while suppressing it did the opposite.
“This study shows that daily periods of slowed activity, whether spent in meditation, unitasking, or simply being still or sleeping are as important for brain health and longevity as activity and exercise,” Gayatri Devi, MD, a neurologist and psychiatrist at Northwell Health in New York, told Healthline.
“The brain is the most energy-hungry organ in our body, consuming nearly a third of our energy, although it weighs only about one-seventieth of our body weight,” explained Devi. “For our brains and our bodies, less is more and rest is best.”
In a world that often feels like it’s moving too quickly, what are some of the best ways to quiet the brain?
Maryanna Klatt, PhD, a professor of clinical family medicine at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, specializes in stress-related chronic illness and is trained in mindfulness, running a program called Mindfulness in Motion.
She shared some strategies for your brain with Healthline.
Klatt says a great way to start on your path to lowered stress and heightened mindfulness is to be more aware of your body.
“Just some gentle stretches and awareness of where you’re holding your tension is a great starting point because when people acknowledge their body, they open up to what really is going on for them,” she said.
Another exercise in mindfulness is to establish a habit that sets events into motion.
“Since we deal a lot with medical doctors, I suggest touching a doorknob before meeting with a patient,” explained Klatt. “This creates a moment to focus on why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they’re going to connect with the patient. The habit is a helpful way to be present with a patient or co-worker.”
Meditation works hand-in-hand with mindfulness because it provides a helpful barometer of one’s mental state.
“It’s not about clearing your mind, it’s about seeing where your mind’s at,” said Klatt. “That’s why having a little meditation practice, even 5 or 10 minutes a day, can make a difference in bringing mindfulness to your activity during the whole day.”
In a spirited discussion, it’s all too easy to stop listening to others as you wait for your chance to speak.
Klatt says she’s seen this in a classroom setting.
“One way to recognize that we are going a thousand miles an hour is to watch our thoughts,” she said. “If you’re not really listening, or not being present with whoever you’re with, that can be a wake-up call to be present and not miss the moment.”
A simple exercise can spell out, in stark terms, whether we’re truly living the life we want to live.
Klatt asks students to create two pie charts, one to show how they’d like to divide the 24 hours in their day, and one to show how they actually spend their time.
While the breakdown likely includes time away from the office, it often doesn’t include any time that’s truly free.
“Earmarking open space intentionally every day, so it’s not for X, Y, or Z, not for exercising, not for reading, but for unstructured time, can help,” said Klatt.
During this time, it’s important to set boundaries and consciously tell yourself that you’re taking time for yourself.
“It’s about being really honest with yourself about having clear boundaries and telling yourself that you’re going to take a break from work, or kids, or trying to solve problems, during the downtime,” Klatt explained. “I think that people waste their downtime. People feel doubly bad because they didn’t get anything productive done and what they really didn’t get done was relaxing.”
We’re often told to watch what we eat, but we’re rarely told to watch how or where we eat.
While it’s fine to enjoy a treat full of empty calories from time to time, it’s probably best not to wolf down a bag of chips while zoning out in front of the television.
“I tell people that if they’re going to eat it anyway, they need to savor it,” said Klatt. “Savor every moment of it because otherwise you’re getting all those calories and you’re missing the pleasure of it.”
Many people don’t acknowledge burnout until they’re fully burnt out.
Recognizing the signs of burnout before it sets in can help with re-assessing and re-prioritizing.
Klatt says symptoms can include emotional exhaustion, the lack of a sense of personal accomplishment, a lack of excitement, and a pervasive mood of irritation.
“It’s when stuff that hadn’t in the past been a big deal suddenly becomes a big deal,” she said. “That’s the point where you want to step back before you get to the point where you’re really not effective at your job, nor effective at living the life that you want to live. Then it’s lose-lose.”
It’s always good to learn from the best.
To this end, Klatt suggests reading up on mindfulness and meditation. (She suggests the book “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn).
Positive examples can also be found in daily life. People who are engaged in their job and their life might have good advice for finding the right balance.
“I think mentorship in terms of mindfulness has really meant a lot during my life,” said Klatt. “Sometimes, you stumble and don’t know how to move forward. I think people all around us have this wisdom, but we don’t take the time to think about who we respect in terms of how they live their lives.”