06/24/2012 12:04 am ET Updated Aug 24, 2012

Get Passionate About Your Memory: 4 Reasons Why You Should Get Intellectually Excited Right Now

What's your latest passion?

One of the most powerful messages coming out of the brain fitness science these days is that having intellectual passions is a major factor in any good brain fitness plan. Things we do to "stretch" our minds force us to think differently or look at the world through a constantly evolving lens. While on the surface such activities seem like the most obvious way to keep our minds sharp, the science behind intellectual engagement is truly more complex than simply a "use it or lose it" equation.

So why do I and other brain health experts spend so much time getting people to stretch their brains? Why does what we do with our minds matter so much? Here are some of the reasons why I'm a big fan of being intellectually passionate at every age:

  • A passionate mind leads to a healthy brain. One measure of brain fitness is the physiological health of our brain itself. Intellectual enrichment has been associated with enhanced neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to make new connections and grow new neurons in both animal and human studies. For example, a German study found that adults who became proficient jugglers showed increased brain volume on imaging studies.
  • A passionate mind gives us a buffer against serious memory loss. We have known for a while that staying intellectually engaged is associated with a lower risk for dementia in later life. This finding has been replicated across a number of large, epidemiological studies both here and in Europe. Such evidence has given rise to the "cognitive reserve" theory, which states that the neuroplasticity supported by such activities build a buffer zone of neural connections and new neurons that delay the onset of dementia symptoms. Most recently, a study out of Rush University Medical Center offers further support to this theory, with reported findings showing that folks who report high levels of lifelong intellectual engagement who develop memory impairment do so later in life and have a sharper and shorter period of impairment.
  • A passionate mind gives us a chance to boost daily brain skills. "Stretch activities" often help us better maintain everyday intellectual skills that are challenged by the aging process. These skills, primarily our ability to keep focused, think quickly and think nimbly, are best addressed by specific exercises played against the clock. However, engaging intellectually across the board -- be it by taking a language class or even working -- gives us more chances to "work out" those skills than we would have otherwise. Volunteering at a local youth center, for example, not only engages your mind, but also forces you to pay closer attention, hold conversations with folks you might not otherwise encounter, and think nimbly to keep up, all of which keep those daily brain skills better trained.
  • A passionate mind keeps us purposed and relevant. One of the most overlooked aspects of growing older is that we are still actually growing. Intellectual passions allow us the ways and means by which we can continue to think about and expand on who we are. Such pursuits give us the chance to constantly question ourselves, to ask the "what if" question that keeps us engaged (not to mention engaging). It is through such intellectual passions that we can learn more about our purpose and determine the legacy we wish to leave behind. While these aspects of well-being may seem more spiritual in nature, there is much to suggest that they matter greatly to brain health, in that they impact our ability to think wisely and to continue to engage richly and meaningfully in the world.

It was Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, who centuries ago counseled us that "It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well." While our understanding of the science behind having a good mind may have advanced, the advice remains the same. Take up a new language, master a new computer game, enroll for that drawing class you've always meant to take. Whatever your latest passion, pursue and enjoy! Consider such passionate pursuits part of your "Total Brain Health" prescription for staying vital and independent -- they are good for your mind, good for your brain, and, perhaps best of all, good for your spirit.

For more by Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., click here.

For more on the mind, click here.