A neuroscientist is warning people need regular brain exercise to help ward off health risks such as senility as they age.
Australians generally are living longer, healthier lives than ever before but visiting American neuroscientist Michael Merzenich warns work is needed to maintain functioning into old age.
Dr Merzenich, emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of California, says the burden of rising demands on the health system could become economically and socially unsupportable.
“By the time you reach your 85th birthday about half of us will need continuous care, [so] have to think about maintaining our abilities and capacities,” he said.
On a visit to South Australia, Dr Merzenich warned medical advances of the past century had dramatically increased the average life span but had largely ignored brain function.
His research has found people who frequently exercise both physically and mentally can maintain healthy functions deep into retirement.
“We are in the middle of a grand experiment,” he said of the ageing population.
“I think it is possible to keep most people in good stead from brain health to the point where their brain span can equal their life span.”
Dr Merzenich has pointed to his Australian friend Rex Lipman, now in his 90s and still working.
To keep physically fit, Mr Lipman plays tennis but twice per day he also takes time to exercise his brain, doing online puzzles and problem-solving.
“It exercises the neurons of the brain, making them move,” Dr Merzenich said.
“Loss of cognitive response is caused by neurons that are no longer healthy and growing and instead of being plastic and soft like when we were young, they get hard and stiff and we don’t hear as well, see as well or taste as well.”
Dr Merzenich says Mr Lipman is “an Australian treasure” and has applauded his friend’s zeal for preaching the value of regular brain exercise.
In recent days in Adelaide, the pair have been taking their message to high school students, staff and students of the University of Adelaide and a gathering the science hub, RiAus, the Royal Institution of Australia.