Does the Brain Stay Active After Death?
Plus living proof that it's never too late to start exercising, and joy among introverts and night owls
Welcome back to Age Wise, your weekly update on the science of physical health and mental wellness at every stage of life. Here’s what’s new and interesting:
The brain “may remain active and coordinated during and after the transition to death,” suggests a new study which, if confirmed by further research, could potentially help explain some out-of-body near-death experiences.
Researchers scanned the brain of an 87-year-old man while he died, noting complex changes in the types of brain waves in the seconds before and after his heart stopped. The brain activity, similar to what occurs during dreaming and memory recall, suggest that his mind was replaying his lifetime of experiences.
The conclusions are based on just one case study, however, and are speculative also because the patient had suffered brain seizures and swelling before he died, and thus may not be a typical case.
“Through generating oscillations involved in memory retrieval, the brain may be playing a last recall of important life events just before we die, similar to the ones reported in near-death experiences,” speculates study team member Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville. In a press release, Zemmar conjectures further, and optimistically: “Although our loved ones have their eyes closed and are ready to leave us to rest, their brains may be replaying some of the nicest moments they experienced in their lives.”
Night Owls and Introverts Aren’t All Miserable
I had night owls on my mind last week when I wrote about the potential benefits of melatonin supplements. Melatonin isn’t for everyone, I noted, but it can help some people reset their body clocks in order to go to bed at what some might consider a reasonable hour, which can be good for health and mental well-being. However…
Not all night owls are unhappy or in any sort of mood to conform to sleep norms. An insightful essay in the New Yorker shows that while working night-shifts or otherwise sleeping outside “normal” hours can be miserable for some folks, many people prefer it.
They don’t all want to live this way. Some of them have to; they have sleep disorders, or night-shift jobs. But some of them want this very much—enough to seek out those night shifts, to train themselves to wake in the dark. They do this because of the isolation, not in spite of it. I talked to people who painted me a magical picture of their nighttime world: of exquisite, profound solitude; of relief; of escape.
The essay by Faith Hill (not that one) explores the oft-cited belief among psychologists that all humans crave social connection and should therefore wish to be on the same sleep-wake schedule as the bulk of society.
Many of the people I spoke with had felt trapped in contemporary life—depressed, on edge, and guilty for feeling that way in the first place. But then, each came to the realization: It doesn’t need to be this way. There’s already a time when the noise and chaos of society falls away. They just need to be awake for it.
Living Proof That it’s Never Too Late to Start Exercising
Science shows what 83-year-old Mike Harrington knows: No matter your age, now is the time to start improving your fitness and health. In my latest article on Medium, I recount Harrington’s amazing journey from sedentary 69-year-old to record-setting planker and champion powerlifter. His motivation—simply to live longer and stay healthy—is rooted in solid science that I’ve recounted in many articles:
If you’re getting older — 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, even 80 — engaging in just about any sort of physical activity can improve your physical and mental health, even potentially boost your sex life, and help you hang around longer.
New research reveals just how late in life one can benefit from jumping on the physical-activity bandwagon:
20 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous daily physical activity (akin to brisk walking) among people ages 70 to 75 helps reduce the risk of heart disease and death by heart attack in their 80s. As with movement at any stage of life, it's important to stick with it. Those who stayed physically active during their early 70s saw the greatest benefit - a 52% lower risk of cardiovascular disease later on than those who started out active but cut back.
Related: How Long Can Humans Really Live?
Looking at Grief
Death is part of life, and grief is part of death. But boy, do we struggle to deal with both. Among the challenges: simple compassion, derived from empathy, which has been in short supply lately, as I wrote recently. It’s all complicated, and I suspect many of us struggle with empathy and compassion and aren’t sure how we stack up to our fellow humans. In part, compassion involves not turning away from the grief of others.
“The prelude to compassion is the willingness to see,” writes Sunita Puri, MD, in a powerful essay on Covid’s individual impact from a physician’s point of view. Puri wonders how the pandemic has not united the country, and offers a sage view on how to handle all the grief:
We cannot simply be those who grieve and those who look away. To help one another, each of us must reach out, express condolences, write cards and offer to listen. Memorials can remind us that grief has affected people we see at the library or coffee shop. Sometimes we must endure the discomfort of seeing the pain of others without being able to intervene.
The range of anecdotes shared by readers of my article Should You Take Melatonin to Help You Sleep? was no surprise. Here’s a sprinkling of comments posted to the article and to my Facebook query to friends, asking how the hormone affected them. None of this is advice! I offer it up only to emphasize how differently melatonin affects different people. If you’re pondering melatonin, please first read up on when it can help, when it won’t, and what’s known about the side effects.
3mg every night for the past 2-3 years. For me, it’s part of a consistent process for regular sleep. I went from scattered sleep patterns to one that is much more predictable. I also fall asleep within minutes.
Hate it. Makes me groggy in the morning. Tried a couple times, never again!
Gives me nightmares.
As others have mentioned, melatonin does nothing for chronic insomnia (at least for me).
Given the information that you presented, I will consult with my doctor about reevaluating my melatonin use.