Instead of shrinking as expected, as part of the normal aging process, the memory center in the brains of seniors maintained their size and, in men, grew modestly after two years in a program that engaged them in meaningful and social activities, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health-led research suggests.
At the same time, those with larger increases in the brain’s volume over two years also saw the greatest improvements on memory tests, showing a direct correlation between brain volume and the reversal of a type of cognitive decline linked to increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
The research, published online in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, studied participants in the Baltimore Experience Corps, a program that brings retired people into public schools to serve as mentors to young children, working with teachers to help them learn to read in 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 Dr. 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.”
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