The New Year is a time of reflection and new beginnings for many of us. This year, consider giving your resolutions some life-long impact.
Actually reading a brain atlas not required
Every year, we grow just a little older and the jokes about aging become just a little more real. For most of us, this is a natural part of life, as science has not yet figured out how to give us eternal youth. But for some of us, aging is a slowly ticking clock towards possible dementia. Alzheimer's Disease is a form of dementia that affects parts of our brain important for learning new information and retrieving old memories (The Hippocampus). According to The Alzheimer's Society of Canada 1, approximately 564,000 Canadians are currently living with some form of dementia and that number is expected to almost double within the next 15 years to 937,000. Between those living with Alzheimer's, their families, and other care-givers, over 1.1 million Canadians are impacted by dementia with an annual cost of $10.4 billion dollars (for my American friends, here are your numbers). To put this in perspective, the Canadian Federal deficit in 2019 was $14 billion 2, so this is not only a widespread but also costly epidemic that will only grow as our population continues to age.
Unfortunately, we have no cure for Alzheimer's Disease and the currently available drug treatments only delay the onset of dementia. A meta-analysis of over 3500 patients found that of people in a pre-Alzheimer's state (mild cognitive impairment), treatment with these drugs only reduced the odds of transitioning to full Alzheimer's by 25% 3. While this may sound like things are bleak, I propose something a little unconventional to help the situation: become a neuroscientist.
One meta-analysis of over 437,477 people found that those with low levels of education were 1.6 times more likely to have Alzheimer's Dementia compared to their more highly educated peers 4. To help put that in perspective, imagine you have a room of 100 people aged 75 to 84 (think Tina Turner, Ian Mckellen, and John Cleese) with only high school education and a room of 100 men the same age with at least a 4-year college degree. In the room of degree holders, based on the stats mentioned above 1, you would expect that 12 people have Alzheimer's. This number would shoot up to 19 for the people who only had a high school diploma. So if you decided to get a degree in neuroscience, why do you suddenly have a lower risk of Alzheimer's? Surely there isn't anything magical about the piece of paper the University gives you. Neuroscientists think that education is really a proxy for something more directly important for Alzheimer's called cognitive reserve. TLDR: the more brain juice you have and regularly use in your daily life, the more robust your brain is from the damage that Alzheimer's causes. So the magic is not in the title of being a neuroscientist, but it's in the lifelong of learning and mental stimulation that comes with the degree. The more synapses you have in your brain, the more you have to spare when the dementia sets in, so the disease can progress further before it starts to cause impairments in memory and thinking.
The key-words in the last paragraph though, are "life-long learning." One study found that for people at age 60, the longer someone had been inactive from their professional life, the worse their memory scores were, with the worst memory found in people who never held a professional job having the worst memory 5. If Alzheimer's runs in your family, building your cognitive reserve starts now, with your current New Years resolutions. While I used the example of becoming a neuroscientist in this article, there are so many ways to build cognitive reserve to fight dementia. In the case you can't suddenly go to University to study neuroscience, consider learning how to play a musical instrument (this has bonus benefits), learning a second language (J'essaye d'apprendre le francais), learning how to cook the cuisine of a new culture (perfect some Pomodoro #MeDi4AD), get some skillz in a new sport (also has bonus benefits), become #woke by learning about Buddhism and mindfulness (this has secular benefits), or become a neuroscientifically informed cannabis connoisseur. It really doesn't matter what you choose to learn about as long as its fun, engaging, and puts your Cingulate and Hippocampus to good use (challenge: understand the science of this joke). For some of us the Alzheimer's clock is slowly ticking, but challenging yourself to a lifetime of learning and practicing NeuroCAM can make it tick a bit slower and prolong our brain's health.
...about Branch Out's funded studies to start becoming a neuroscientist
...about the neuroscience of making your New Year's resolutions sustainable
...about early life-long dementia prevention steps
3. Diniz, B. S., Pinto, J. A., Gonzaga, M. L. C., Guimaraes, F. M., Gattaz, W. F., & Forlenza, O. V. (2009). To treat or not to treat? A meta-analysis of the use of cholinesterase inhibitors in mild cognitive impairment for delaying progression to Alzheimer’s disease. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 259(4), 248-256.
4. Meng, X., & D’arcy, C. (2012). Education and dementia in the context of the cognitive reserve hypothesis: a systematic review with meta-analyses and qualitative analyses. PloS one, 7(6), e38268.
5. Adam, S., Bonsang, E., Grotz, C., & Perelman, S. (2013). Occupational activity and cognitive reserve: implications in terms of prevention of cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical interventions in aging, 8, 377.