Want to stay youthful even as you grow older?
Perhaps you should act more like a bee.
Researchers at Arizona State University have discovered that adult honeybees experience reverse brain aging when they take on responsibilities, like childcare, usually handled by much younger bees.
The Arizona State team hopes this means that shifts in activity can be effective in slowing age-related dementia in humans. In their paper, published this week in the journal Experimental Gerontology, the researchers described how they tricked older bees into doing social tasks in their nest — normally the older bees only forage for food. The scientists removed all the younger “nurse” bees from the nest while the older bees were out foraging, leaving behind only the babies and the queen. When the older bees returned, about half of them eventually began caring for the babies themselves, while the others returned to foraging. Those who cared for the babies experienced age-reversing changes in the molecular structure of their brains. The others didn't.
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"We knew from previous research that when bees stay in the nest and take care of larvae — the bee babies — they remain mentally competent for as long as we observe them," associate professor Gro Amdam, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. "However, after a period of nursing, bees fly out gathering food and begin aging very quickly. After just two weeks, foraging bees have worn wings, hairless bodies, and more importantly, lose brain function — basically measured as the ability to learn new things.
"We wanted to find out if there was plasticity in this aging pattern, so we asked the question, 'What would happen if we asked the foraging bees to take care of larval babies again?'"
The bees who returned to childcare demonstrated a significant improvement in their ability to learn and had higher levels of the protein Prx6, which is also found in human brains and is believed to help maintain memory function and ward off dementia. The older bees who helped raise the larvae also lived longer than those who did not. Study co-author Nicholas Baker of Arizona State told National Geographic that when the team discovered the older bees "were performing as well as the young nurser bees had, we were like, 'They're intelligent again! So what happened?'"
The Arizona State team believes this discovery could eventually help lead to new drugs that increase production of key proteins to preserve brain function in humans. They concede such a breakthrough may take 30 years, but they are hopeful that people can take action now to slow or even reverse aging in the brain, like the bees did. "This does show that social contact and taking on new activities — building new brain connections — delays the bad effects of aging," said Baker, recommending that older folks take on fresh challenges to stay young.
"These proteins may be able to spontaneously respond to specific social experiences," Amdam said.
So, what should you do to be more like those older bees and try to reverse aging in your brain? You could race over to your adult children's homes, ask them to go to the supermarket for you and, while they're out, change the locks and raise your grandchildren as your own. Or, less criminally, you could take the advice of neurologists and other researchers: Get regular aerobic exercise and get yourself involved in new activities that will stretch the plasticity of your brain (which would, by the way, include playing with your grandchildren more often).
Scientists believe one of the most effective ways to create those fresh pathways may be playing specially-designed, research-driven video games. Another is to learn a musical instrument. New York University psychology professor Gary Marcus, who had never shown any musical ability, took up the guitar in middle age and wrote about his journey, and what it taught him about the underestimated capability of middle-aged minds, in his book, Guitar Zero (Penguin, 2012). As Marcus told Next Avenue about acquiring skills in midlife, "People are afraid they can’t learn new things but all of us do it every day, and it extends throughout our lives."
So start learning — it will keep your mind buzzing for years to come.