Use it or lose it – how to reduce your risk of cognitive decline

By Alive & Well

Professor Martin Delatycki - Director of the Bruce Lefroy Centre at the Murdoch Childrens Research InstituteGuest post from Professor Martin Delatycki
Director of the Bruce Lefroy Centre at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, and Director of Clinical Genetics at Austin Health.

There’s an old saying that “if you don’t use it you will lose it,” but what evidence is there that this is true for our brain?

These days, plenty.

The first evidence came from studies of children raised in institutions in Eastern Europe in the late 20th century with minimal environmental stimulation, who were found – sadly – to have lower IQ and higher rates of behavioural challenges such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

These studies have since been borne out many times over, particularly in relation to understanding and treating cognitive decline disorders such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s:

  • In 2000, a landmark paper was published in the prestigious journal Nature showing that an activity-enriched environment delays the onset of Huntington disease in mice – and subsequent work showed that the rate of death of brain cells was slower as well
  • An important study in Western Australia found that individuals with mild memory problems who were given a 24-week home-based program of physical activity showed improved cognitive function (and individuals with similar problems who were not given the physical activity program declined in cognitive function over the same period)
  • Another study found that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease were found to have had lower levels of physical and intellectual activity during middle age prior to the onset of symptoms, compared to individuals who did not go on to develop the disease
  • My team and I conducted a similar study which found that people with the least passive lifestyle had, on average, an onset of Huntington’s disease around four years later.

All of this research tells us that we can delay and minimise the onset of cognitive decline by ensuring our minds and bodies stay active.

For people with a predisposition to these diseases, that means a much better quality of life overall, and fewer years struggling with the challenges of memory loss, unsteadiness, lack of independence and much more.

Staying active is the key

It’s all about:

  • sudokuMoving your body – walking, gardening, swimming, running, sailing, golf, tennis … just 30 minutes a day is all it takes
  • Stimulating your mind – brain puzzles like sodoku and crosswords are great, as are reading, attending lectures, and feeling a sense of connection to people within your community
  • Minimising passive activities such as watching TV and talking on the phone – downtime is important, but avoid spending hours a day on the couch

This is a whole-of-life thing – an active middle age is just as important as an active childhood, so it’s never too late to start.

I’d be very happy to answer any questions you might have about genetic health.

The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute is Australia’s largest child health research institute, and the Bruce Lefroy Centre focuses on genetic health research. Austin Health is the major provider of tertiary health services, health professional education and research in the northeast of Melbourne, and is world-renowned for its research and specialist work.