6 Ways to ‘Quiet’ Your Brain and Live Longer
By Dan Gray
- 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.
Tune into Your Body
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."
Chart It Out
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."
Think About Meals
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."
Reposted with permission from our media partner Healthline.
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They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.
When Leaders and Doctors Spread Misinformation<p>When people in charge of towns, cities, states, and countries spread misinformation, the potential for belief in misinformation to result in policies can have harmful effects.</p><p><a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor?q=Bruce+E.+Hirsch%2C+MD&insurance=&location=&query_type=provider&physician_partners=false&default_view=list&gender=&language=&sort=relevancy" target="_blank">Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch</a>, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, says an example of this is when President Trump informed the public he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure.</p><p>"To approach this enormous challenge, we need some intellectual honesty and clarity, and to disregard expertise and to make decisions and model decisions based on hunches is inviting us to handle challenges on the basis of rumor and uninformed opinion. The magnitude of that error is epic," Hirsch told Healthline.</p><p>Stukus agrees, noting that the harm of this proclamation is documented.</p><p>"Early on when the president touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, people started to hoard this medicine, and state boards had to shut it down because they were getting so many prescriptions for this unproven therapy that it was not available for those who truly needed it, such as those who have lupus and autoimmune conditions," Stukus said.</p><p>He adds that calls to poison control centers increased after the president suggested using disinfectant to prevent contracting the new coronavirus.</p>
Listen to Science, Even When it Changes<p>When recommendations change or evidence flip-flops, skepticism may arise. However, Stukus says change is the beauty of science.</p><p>"That shows us that we can evolve, and if the evidence shows that our prior thoughts were incorrect, we need to be able to change our recommendations and advice based upon the best quality of evidence at the time," he said.</p><p>Pierre agrees.</p><p>"Science is an iterative process, whereby we arrive at facts and truth through repeated and controlled observations. That means that it's inherently self-correcting as we revise conclusions based on ongoing research. Scientific facts aren't immutable dogma chiseled on a tablet. They change based on the best available evidence we have at a given point in time," he said.</p><p>Because research of COVID-19 has only been underway for 6 months, information is evolving rapidly, and new information may contradict old.</p><p>"There's still much we don't know about exactly how [COVID-19] spreads, what effects it has on the body, or how to best treat it. That means that the best available evidence is preliminary, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it or turn to other sources of information or opinion as if they're just as valid," Pierre said.</p><p>He explains that conspiracy theories based on mistrust lead to vulnerability to misinformation.</p><p>If people mistrust science because it sometimes "changes its mind," Pierre said, "that shouldn't be used to embrace other opinions based on no evidence at all, which are typically selected based on confirmation bias: what we want to believe rather than what the objective evidence supports."</p>
Where to Find the Best Information<p>Stukus says to start with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html" target="_blank">CDC</a> and <a href="https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus" target="_blank">NIH</a>. Then check with your local health officials, because COVID-19 guidelines may vary depending on where you live.</p><p>If you can't find information you need or have questions specifically related to you, call your primary care doctor.</p><p>"Your personal doctor should always be a resource for individual specific questions because they know best how to apply all the nuances retaining to your health, and how to incorporate all the other general [COVID-19] recommendations," Stukus said.</p><p><a href="https://www.eehealth.org/find-a-doctor/b/boyd-laura-b/" target="_blank">Dr. Laura Boyd</a>, primary care physician at Edward-Elmhurst Health Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, says her clinic receives a lot of calls about COVID-19.</p><p>"Most doctors' offices are receiving calls and answering questions, and doing phone or video visits to help clarify and/or order testing over the phone based on patients' symptoms. It is always best to call your doctor's office first instead of worrying about symptoms and waiting too long to seek treatment," she told Healthline.</p><p>If your primary care doctor has limited testing, she suggests looking on your state's public health website for available testing sites.</p><p>With a lot of unknowns related to this virus and disease, Boyd says many patients are feeling overwhelmed and anxious for a treatment.</p><p>"Unfortunately, there is no specific medication recommended for COVID for outpatient. There are a lot of ongoing studies with various drugs going on within the hospital setting. Patients should always contact their doctors about their specific symptoms as they can treat the symptoms that go along with COVID, but there is no cure," Boyd said.</p><p>While we wait for treatment and a vaccine, Hirsch, who treats patients hospitalized for COVID-19 complications on a daily basis, says everyone can do their part by washing hands, wearing a mask, and staying 6 feet apart.</p><p>"As an infectious disease doctor working in the hospital, I see the damage of the pandemic and the worst cases of what's happening. We are trying to get the best possible outcome and confronting this overwhelming biologic reality of this terrible epidemic the best we can," Hirsch said.</p><p>Everyone at home can help in the fight too, he adds.</p><p>"Follow information that is science- and evidence-based, and avoid that which is not," he said.</p>
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