Everyone ages. It’s a natural effect of being alive. Our bodies show signs of aging on the outside: skin wrinkles, hair turns grey and stops growing. Our brains also begin to deteriorate.
The aging process can be cruel to our brains. Physical changes occur in the brain. Cognitive skills change as we age as well. Further, the brain chemicals change and vascular alterations come into play.
There are things we can do to maintain a healthy brain as we age, which will help prevent some of the deterioration.
Just like every person, every brain is different. While many factors of aging will occur in everyone, gender, general physical and mental health, as well as diet, all play a contributing role in brain function deterioration.
The first significant physical change is shrinking of the brain. Primarily seen in the prefrontal cortex, the size and overall weight of the brain diminish. Grey matter of the frontal lobe tends to be the most widely affected.
A study has shown that for every decade over the age of 40, our brains show a 5% decrease in size. Once we are at the age of 70, this rate possibly increases per decade.
We are still relatively unclear as to the method of shrinking, with most prognoses leading towards cell death in grey matter. Gender also factors in the rate and physical size of decrease. With men and women experiencing physical shrinking in different areas of the brain.
A report from the Oxford University Press thinks that white matter deterioration should also be considered, stating: “White matter may decline with age, the myelin sheath deteriorating after around the age of 40 even in normal ageing and it has been suggested that the late myelinating regions of the frontal lobes are most affected by white matter lesions.”
We may not know exactly why or how the brain shrinks with age, but we do know that it does and the decrease in brain size and mass leads to other deterioration factors.
Memory is the most likely and most widely seen cognitive brain function to change as we age.
Surprisingly, this change isn’t always a decline. There are 4 major memory sections:
- Episodic memory
- Semantic memory
- Procedural memory
- Working memory
Episodic memory is the ability to use mental tags to place a memory. Remembering your first car or the first person you kissed or which birthday you received your favorite toy are all examples of episodic memory.
We use this memory for recognition of people and places, names and dates. From middle age onward we tend to begin to lose episodic memory. The rate of decline increases with age. It is also the major memory loss factor in Alzheimer’s patients.
Semantic memory is commonly referred to as memory of meaning. Semantic memory is why we can remember state capitals or that twelve inches are in a foot. Semantic memory increases from middle age through early elderly. However, in late elderly brains, semantic memory declines rapidly.
We currently do not know exactly why this decline happens. Some speculate it has to do with the shrinking of the brain forcing the elderly to have less brain matter with which to function.
Procedural and Working memory
Procedural memory and working memory have not been determined to have any notable change (either increase or decrease) because of aging as a factor.
When aging and the brain are concerned, the two major neurotransmitters are dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine levels are tied to cognitive and motor skill functions. Dopamine levels decrease at a rate of about 10% per decade starting in early adulthood. This rate is not known to increase as aging progresses. Reduced levels of dopamine, however, lead to memory loss such as those mentioned above, especially in recognition and short-term episodic memory.
You are also far more likely to lose basic motor skills as dopamine levels drop.
Serotonin works in your brain with brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Together they work to keep the other increasing and functioning. As our brain ages, though, these levels drop and we notice an increase in the likelihood of prominent depression, anxiety.
It is also believed that decreased levels of serotonin can lead to other chemical related deficiencies such as Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Like most other brain age functions, we are uncertain why it happens or how. We do know that we can delay these factors and promote healthy brain aging.
Healthy Brain Aging
Vascular deterioration occurs with white matter lesions. This happens naturally and is a direct effect of aging, shrinking brain size and chemical and hormonal imbalances. All of which progress as we age.
Increased risk of stroke, dementia and white matter lesions all stem from brain aging.
It can be delayed and in some cases even prevented. The first key to promoting healthy brain aging is stimulation. Doing crossword puzzles or engaging in stimulating conversations have shown reductions in the declination of brain tissue.
Social activity shows a very high increase in brain activity and overall function. As we get older, the brain atrophies less when we have larger social interactions.
A healthy diet is crucial as well. Feeding our bodies a well-balanced diet will also feed our brains. A balanced diet rich in vitamins and proteins will keep brain activity elevated as well as synapses firing which promotes overall brain health.
Physical exercise such as running, jogging, yoga and cardiovascular routines increase the blood flow to the brain. Increased blood flow reduces cell death in the brain and maintains high-level brain functionality.
Science still has a long way to go to understand how our brain functions decline as we age. However, a healthy diet with plenty of rest, exercise and talking with good friends will help keep your brain healthy, active and functional until science can catch up.