We all expect our bodies to deteriorate over time, and we know that our brains are a part of that body. We still don’t expect the brain to be the first organ to completely fail. As our lifespans increase, however, this organ is becoming one of our most vulnerable assets. It turns out, the mind has an expiration date.
Experts estimate that upwards of 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Though the disease usually presents in people over 60 years older, it can strike younger. It is an illness of mental degeneration. Its victims suffer from memory loss, decreased cognitive abilities and, eventually, the inability to accomplish even simple tasks.
The telltale physical signs of Alzheimer’s are lost connectivity between neurons in the brain, and bundles of misfolded proteins deposited as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles throughout the brain. Though genetics play a role in a person’s predisposition to Alzheimer’s, lifestyle also matters.
People with lower levels of education, for example, tend to have higher levels of Alzheimer’s. This has led researchers to question whether mental stimulation might prevent the disease from taking root. Environment enrichment (EE) has long been studied, and is well documented as a method of improving neuronal function. We’re less sure about how EE impacts the brain’s immune system, which is also a factor in Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers at the Anne Romney Center for Neurological Disease are ready to find out. A recent study released in coalition with Harvard Medical School finds that EE prevents the microglial inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s. This finding may have implications for all degenerative brain disorders that have a microglial inflammation component.
The take home message here is that maintaining an enriched environment can keep your brain healthy in more than one way. It will keep your neurons healthy, while also helping your immune system to fight off inflammation. In other words, you should go buy a puzzle immediately.