Have you had a “senior moment” today? Do you worry about the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other forms of brain atrophy in old age? These are common concerns. As we age, our brains can shrink, but a new study from John Hopkins University reveals that brain health can be improved with civic-minded activities such as volunteering and teaching.
Our brains can do incredible things, such as control robotics such as this mind-controlled robotic arm, or learn to use other tools. Our brains are so amazing that we are even trying to build brain-like computers. But how can you keep your brain amazing and healthy? A new study, led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, engaged a group of senior citizens in a program of meaningful social activities. Instead of shrinking, the memory centers in the brains of the study participants maintained their size. After two years in the program, some participants’ brains even grew.
The people with larger increases in brain volume over two years also showed the biggest improvements on memory tests, indicating a direct correlation between brain volume and the reversal of the cognitive decline linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Senior Volunteers for Brain Health
The research team studied the brain health of seniors in the Baltimore Experience Corps, a program that brings retired people into public schools to serve as mentors to young children. The retirees work alongside teachers helping children learn to read in otherwise understaffed school libraries.
“Someone once said to me that being in this program removed the cobwebs from her brain and this study shows that is exactly what is happening,” says study leader Michelle Carlson, an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “By helping others, participants are helping themselves in ways beyond just feeding their souls. They are helping their brains. The brain shrinks as part of aging, but with this program we appear to have stopped that shrinkage and are reversing part of the aging process.”
Experience Corps is a national program, but it can be costly to operate and isn’t available everywhere. However, it is clear that finding purpose and civic engagement may forestall some of the damage of aging on the brain and improve lifelong brain health.
Studying Brain Health: How the Research was Done
For the study, Carlson and her colleagues selected 111 men and women for the study, from which 58 were randomly chosen to enroll in the Experience Corps and 53 were excluded from the program as a control group. The researchers took MRI scans of participants’ brains at enrollment and then again after 12 and 24 months. They also conducted memory tests. Participants were an average of 67.2 years old, were in good health, came from neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status, and had some college education.
The control group in the study exhibited age-related shrinkage in the volume of their brains. Typically, annual rates of atrophy in adults over age 65 range from 0.8 percent to 2.0 percent. Those enrolled in Experience Corps, however, showed a 0.7 percent to 1.6 percent increase in brain health and size over the course of two years.
One strength of this two-year study was that the participants were followed for long enough to see changes that wouldn’t have been detected after just one year, which is the length of many cognitive intervention studies.
Volunteer programs such as Experience Corps increases involvement in many different kinds of activities that retired people may not otherwise engage in. The seniors are physically active, they work in teams and with young people, they share their knowledge and know they are doing good in the world. They also engage in problem solving and socialize in ways they might not have if they stayed at home.
“We’re not training them on one skill, like doing crossword puzzles,” Carlson says. “We’re embedding complexity and novelty into their daily lives, something that tends to disappear once people retire. The same things that benefit us at 5, 10, 25, 35 – contact with others, meaningful work – are certain to benefit us as we age.”
This research on brain health is published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. This study was supported by the Johns Hopkins Neurobehavioral Research Unit, the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, and the Johns Hopkins Epidemiology and Biostatistics of Aging Research Fellowship.
The paper entitled, “Impact of the Baltimore Experience Corps Trial on cortical and hippocampal volumes” was written by Michelle C. Carlson, Julie H. Kuo, Yi-Fang Chuang, Vijay Varma, Greg Harris, Marilyn Albert, Kirk I. Erickson, Arthur F. Kramer, Jeanine M. Parisi, Qian-Li Xue, Erwin Tan, Elizabeth K. Tanner, Alden Gross, Teresa E. Seeman, Tara Gruenewald, Sylvia McGill, George W. Rebok, and Linda P. Fried.
Experience Corps is Available in the Following Cities
Illustration courtesy of Dream Designs via freedigitalphotos.net