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What Happens To Our Brains As We Age?


Our bodies change with each year that passes. Many of those changes are well-known: gray hair… wrinkled skin.... sore bones and muscles. What is less known is the changes that happen to your brain as you get older. 

The relationship between aging and the physical body is a well-known and accepted part of life. Surely anyone will tell you that as you get older, you should expect your physical faculties to begin to fail. 

Your joints start to hurt more. Your eyes don’t work as well as they used to. Your skin begins to wrinkle and loosen. 

Every year, legendary professional athletes retire from their preferred sport not for financial or personal reasons, but rather because their bodies can no longer pay the physical toll required of them. 

One relationship that is less known, however, is that between age and the brain. And that’s a bit odd -- after all, your brain is just as much a physical part of your body as your knees or eyes. It’s a 3 pound organ with around 100 billion neurons interconnected via trillions of synapses. And as you age, it’s just as vulnerable to wearing down as any other part of you. 

So what exactly happens to our brains as we age? 

Well, the first thing to understand is that our brains are like our fingerprints -- unique from every other brain in the world, so not every brain experiences the same problems at the same time. Brain aging affects everyone differently; however, science has identified certain areas of the brain most affected by aging, as well as when they tend to occur. 

“Aging Brain” Begins Sooner Than You Think

Most of us think of mental decline as something that occurs to the elderly, when in actuality, it can start as early as your 20s. Slips of the mind can occur when trying to recall simple things like names and numbers. That’s because strategic memory, which helps memory of names and numbers, begins to decline around age 20: we begin losing neurons, the cells that make up the brain and nervous system. 

Decade By Decade 

In your 30s, memory begins to slip as the number of neurons in the brain decreases. You may find it takes you longer to learn a new skill or set of facts. Names of people don’t come to you quite as quickly. 

In your 40s and 50s, your reasoning skills decline. A study conducted by the British Medical Journal found that a group of people who were first tested on various mental abilities when they were 45–49 years old saw their reasoning skills declined by 3.6 percent over 10 years. The participants were also less sharp with their ability to say words quickly in a specific category.

Although your brain begins to shrink in your 30s and 40s, by your 60s, the rate of shrinkage increases. It’s important to note, the volume loss isn’t uniform throughout the brain -- some areas shrink more, and faster, than other areas. The prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, and hippocampus show the biggest losses, which worsen in later years. In your 60s, your brain becomes less efficient at accessing knowledge and adding to it, so recalling names, dates and events is more difficult. This is typically when most people think problems with an “aging brain” begin, likely because most people with Alzheimer’s disease are age 65 and older. 

In your 70s and 80s, the risk for developing Alzheimer’s gets even higher, reaching a 50% likelihood by age 85. It’s unknown why the risk increases so dramatically -- one possible explanation is the presence of inflammation, a natural part of aging that can lead to a build-up of deposits in areas like the hippocampus, which is where new memories are formed. These deposits may also interfere with long-term memory. 

How To Slow Down Decline 

One important thing to remember is that cognitive impairment is not inevitable -- at least in the sense that there’s nothing you can do to stop or delay it. 

In fact, experts have identified very simple strategies you can implement today that will boost your cognitive function and prevent mental decline. For example, that crossword puzzle or strategy game you enjoy is actually protecting your brain! Experts have found that these mental stimulation activities help forge new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing neurological "plasticity" and building up a functional reserve that can be used for future cell loss. 

It may also surprise you that physical activity can have a big impact on your brain power later in life. Obesity in midlife may speed up brain aging by around 10 years. So when you make efforts to take care of your body, you fuel your mind as well! 

Recent animal testing has found exercise encourages the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells. As a result, the brain becomes more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better performance in aging animals. 

Research shows that regular aerobic exercise, like walking or cycling, for just 30 minutes a day reduces brain cell loss. Exercise also lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance and reduces mental stress, all of which can help your brain as well as your heart. 

And make sure not to neglect proper nutrition for brain health. Research has found that those whose diet is heavy in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils and plant sources of proteins are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia. 

Poor nutrition, on the other hand, can have serious consequences for your brain: it’s been found that both sugar and diet varieties of soda are correlated with accelerated brain age, a smaller overall brain volume, poorer episodic memory, and a shrunken hippocampus.

On The Bright Side

It's not all downhill once you begin to age! 

While it’s true that you can expect a decline in the ability to recall life events and accumulated knowledge and facts (known as “declarative knowledge”) as you age, other areas remain well intact. 

"Procedural memories” -- the ability to remember how to accomplish tasks like dress yourself or fix things around the house -- stay with you as you age. 

Additionally, your ability to make morality-based decisions, regulate emotions and read social situations actually begin to improve with middle age. This boost in cognition is due, experts suspect, at least in part to the life experience one gains over time. And other studies indicate that one fifth of 70-year-olds are able to perform cognitive tests just as well as their 20-year-old counterparts, which reinforces the fact that we will all experience brain aging differently. 

And beginning around age 40, we tend to remember positive images more than negative ones. That continues throughout our 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s. So as we get older we're actually able to look at the bright side more often! 

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