Your Brain as You Age: What to Know

The Aging Brain

Did you know your brain shrinks as you age? Sounds a little scary. No one looks forward to the aging process. But it is a completely normal part of getting older. The more you understand and learn about aging, the easier it will be to handle the changes. This especially goes for the changes that happen to your brain.

Here is some important information about the aging brain and how to upkeep your brain health as you get older.

1- There are actually positive cognitive changes

You have a lifetime of experiences—and those experiences work to your benefit as you age. According to the National Institute of Aging, you can still

  • Learn new things
  • Develop new hobbies
  • Improve your language skills and vocabulary
  • Create new memories

2- Your brain declines begins earlier than you think

Your brain reaches full development at around age 25. Its function can begin to decline as early as your late 20s. Your brain experiences physical changes—shrinking—beginning around age 30 and accelerating around age 50.

After the age of 40, your brain shrinks by 5% each decade. The shrinkage speeds up after the age of 70 as your brain cells die off with increased age.

Though your brain starts declining earlier than you think—or would have hoped—most don’t begin to truly notice cognitive decline until their mid-40s.

Your brain shrinks faster after the age of 40.

3- Exercise helps brain health

Exercise is a major pillar of optimal brain health. Exercise is just a good thing all around. Here are just some of the overall benefits:

  • Improve weight loss
  • Boost your energy levels
  • Improve your mood
  • Support optimal heart health
  • Improve your sleep habits

What does exercise have to do with brain health? According to Harvard Health, exercise affects the way your brain protects memories and other skills. And exercise improves brain health in direct and indirect ways. Further explained, exercise directly affects the release of growth factors. These are chemicals that stimulate the growth of new brain blood vessels and the health and survival of new brain cells. Indirectly, exercise can improve your sleep and mood by reducing stress and anxiety.

Exercise has many other health benefits as you age. It helps improve your balance—reduces the risk of falling—and extends your flexibility. Maintaining your flexibility gives you more energy and improves your posture. Aerobic exercise can help encourage new brain cell growth. Exercise also strengthens your muscles, bones, and joints.

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4- Episodic memory is the first to go

There are different types of memory. Short-term memory. Long-term memory. Semantic memory helps you remember facts. Procedural memory is muscle memory. Sensory memory helps you process what your five senses experience. Episodic memory is the kind of memory that helps you remember events and things that have happened to you. These are the type of memories that typically go first.

Everyone forgets things—this doesn’t necessarily mean you or a loved one has Alzheimer’s disease. Others signs of Alzheimer’s include:

  • difficulty reading and writing
  • poor judgement
  • wandering/getting lost
  • problems handling money
  • difficulty completing normal tasks
  • confusion of time
  • trouble understanding visual images
  • Social withdrawal and mood changes

5- Your emotional and mental health

Conditions such as depression or anxieties are not directly linked to aging. In fact, these disorders often lessen as you reach your later years. If you or a loved one experience depression or anxiety, it could be a sign of something else. According to the Cleveland Clinic, medical illnesses are closely tied to mental illness in the older population.

It is important for emotional changes to be documented. Older adults that live with an illness that impacts their quality of life are at the highest risk for depression. Such illnesses may include:

  • Heart disease
  • Physical disability
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson’s

Again, it is important to watch for signs as depression and anxiety often go undiagnosed in the elderly. Signs of these conditions can include:

  • Loss of interest in activities or people
  • Digestive problems
  • Aches and pains
  • Concentration problems
  • Cognitive impairment

These are not the usual complaints of people with depression/anxiety. However, these disorders often present themselves differently in older adults.

Mental illness connected to medical illness

6- You need your vitamin B

There are a lot of B vitamins: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), pantothenate (B5), biotin, pyridoxine (B6), folate (B9), and cobalamin (B12). The B vitamins play a vital role in brain health. Those who are deficient in vitamin B are at a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Here is an example.

In a study done by the University of Oxford, the participants (ages between 61 and 87) with higher levels of vitamin B12 were six times less likely to have brain shrinkage.

Eating a well-rounded diet is the best way to get B vitamins. Many foods—whole grains, leafy greens, legumes, fruits—are great sources of vitamin B. Vitamin B12 can only be obtained from animal products. Additionally, aging can affect how your intestines absorb vitamin B12 so you should ask your doctor about taking a supplement.

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7- Head injuries drastically affect your aging brain

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can occur from various situations: falling and hitting your head, getting in a car accident, or any head-on collision in a contact sport. They are categorized as a violent blow or jolt to the head. It doesn’t matter at what age—TBIs can have lasting impacts. Adults aged 60 and older are at increased risk due to their risk of falling. Some of the side effects of a brain injury include:

  • Attention or focus issues
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Headaches
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Quickened cognitive decline
  • Irritability
  • Decreasing motivation
  • Declining balance

Depending on the seriousness of the injury, the effects can be seen years after the injury.

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