Can thinking too much shorten your life?

Font Size:

Is it possible to think too much? New research has revealed some startling findings, with too much thinking linked to a shorter life span.

The brain’s neural activity, long implicated in disorders ranging from dementia to epilepsy, plays a role in human ageing and life span, according to scientists from the Harvard Medical School.

The study is based on findings from human brains, mice and worms and suggests that excessive activity in the brain is linked to shorter life spans, while suppressing such overactivity extends life.

The findings offer the first evidence that the activity of the nervous system affects human longevity. Although previous studies had suggested that parts of the nervous system influenced ageing in animals, the role of neural activity in ageing, especially in humans, remained murky.

“An intriguing aspect of our findings is that something as transient as the activity state of neural circuits could have such far-ranging consequences for physiology and life span,” said study senior author Professor Bruce Yankner.

Neural excitation appears to act along a chain of molecular events famously known to influence longevity: the insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) signalling pathway.

The key in this signalling cascade appears to be a protein called REST, previously shown by the Yankner Lab to protect ageing brains from dementia and other stresses.

Neural activity refers to the constant flicker of electrical currents and transmissions in the brain. Excessive activity, or excitation, could manifest itself in numerous ways, from a muscle twitch to a change in mood or thought, the authors said.

It’s not yet clear from the study whether or how a person’s thoughts, personality or behaviour affect their longevity.

“An exciting future area of research will be to determine how these findings relate to such higher-order human brain functions,” said Prof. Yankner.

The study could inform the design of new therapies for conditions that involve neural overactivity, such as Alzheimer’s disease and bipolar disorder, the researchers claim.

The findings raise the possibility that certain medicines, such as drugs that target REST, or certain behaviours, such as meditation, could extend life span by modulating neural activity.

Human variation in neural activity might have both genetic and environmental causes, which would open future avenues for therapeutic intervention, Prof. Yankner said.

The study analysed gene expression patterns – the extent to which various genes are turned on and off – in donated brain tissue from hundreds of people who died at ages ranging from 60 to over 100.

The information had been collected through three separate research studies of older adults. Those analysed in the current study were cognitively intact, meaning they had no dementia.

Immediately, a striking difference appeared between the older and younger study participants, said Prof. Yankner. The longest-lived people – those over 85 – had lower expression of genes related to neural excitation than those who died between the ages of 60 and 80.

The team then tested genetically-altered mice and additional brain tissue analysis of people who lived for more than a century.

These experiments revealed that altering neural excitation does indeed affect life span – and illuminated what might be happening on a molecular level.

All signs pointed to the protein REST.

REST, which is known to regulate genes, also suppresses neural excitation, the researchers found.

Blocking REST or its equivalent in the animal models led to higher neural activity and earlier deaths, while boosting REST did the opposite. And human centenarians had significantly more REST in the nuclei of their brain cells than people who died in their 70s or 80s.

In addition to its emerging role in staving off neurodegeneration, discovery of REST’s role in longevity provides additional motivation to develop drugs that target the protein.

Although it will take time and many tests to determine whether such treatments reduce neural excitation, promote healthy ageing or extend life span, the concept has captivated some researchers.

What do you think about this research? Do you think an overactive brain leads to a shorter life? Does this research support commonly held views about the benefits of meditation?

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Join YourLifeChoices today
and get this free eBook!

By joining YourLifeChoices you consent that you have read and agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy


Prioritise non-drug treatments for dementia sufferers: study

An analysis of studies that involved more than 23,000 people with dementia found that s

Cataract surgery makes drivers 48 per cent safer on the road

Australian researchers used a driving simulator to test the success of cataract surgery

Study shows eating mushrooms linked to lower cancer risk

Research finds an association between eating mushrooms and a lower risk of prostate can

Written by Ben


Total Comments: 12
  1. 0

    You should have saved this article for April 1st.

  2. 0

    Now I know why my brain hurts! ha ha

  3. 0

    what about mathematicians ??
    now I know why my aboriginal friends hav a low life expectancy They think too much

  4. 0

    what about mathematicians ??
    now I know why my aboriginal friends hav a low life expectancy They think too much

  5. 0

    Makes sense, the more revs the quicker an engine wears out or breaks down.

  6. 0

    So how do you relate the theory that keeping ones brain active – by
    doing puzzles, quizzes etc., helps stave off dementia and alzheimers.
    This seems to go against that

  7. 0

    I never read anything as ridiculous as this article. For a start the sample is restrictive and secondly waht of those that actually remain active for longer by using their intelligence. This seems to be research misdirected and targetted.

  8. 0

    So thats why politicians live longer!!

  9. 0

    If thinking shortens one’s life-span, then there should be hordes of Australians with great longevity.

  10. 0

    This seems to fly in the face of studies that indicate mental stimulation helps to stave off dementia. On the other hand, as a person who suffered panic attacks and migraines for 50 years I know that these are not the kind of neural activities that are helpful for the brain.

Load More Comments



continue reading


Exercise proven to aid cancer patients

At Sydney's iconic Bondi Icebergs pool, on a crisp spring morning, Siobhan O'Toole and Donna Moclair look like seasoned swimmers...


How to … safely remove embarrassing stains

Tips and tricks on removing red wine or pasta sauce stains from clothing are readily exchanged between family and friends,...


Podcast: Why you need Five Good Friends in your life

Simon Lockyer from Five Good Friends joins John Deeks to discuss how Five Good Friends has revolutionised home care, how...

Living in retirement

I wrote my autobiography. You can too – and you should

Peter Harris is 73 and has finished a project that has absorbed and excited him for more than two decades....


Dog behaviours and what they mean

Dogs will be dogs. They eat, lick, fetch and give unlimited love. They'll also chew, bite, dig and bark, and...


A prostate catch 22

Columnist Peter Leith takes the time to talk, lobby and observe. In this addition to his Aspects of Ageing true...


Max Williams experiences the magic of Lake Mungo

I gaze in wonder at the small bone fragments I am holding. Most likely they are part of a Murray...

Travel News

WA opens borders – but not to everyone

After hard lockdowns, travellers from New South Wales and Victoria have been granted quarantine free access to Western Australia. As...