Your Aging Brain
As we age, we can see our physical appearance changing—all we have to do is look in the mirror. However, it is not so apparent that our brains are also undergoing considerable changes. Scientific studies have shown that the size and structure of our brains are changing throughout life.1
First The Bad News
If you could peek inside your brain, you would see how it is affected by the aging process. Here is what typically happens as our brains age:
- Volume decreases: Somewhere around your 20th birthday is your peak brain mass. After that your brain volume steadily declines until around age 50 when this process accelerates. It is thought that the loss of neural connections, rather than brain cells, accounts for this loss of volume.2
- Plasticity declines: Plasticity is defined as the brain’s ability to change its structure by forming new connections, deleting unused connections, and strengthening useful connections. Our plasticity typically declines as we age.
- Blood flow diminishes: Blood flow to the brain can decrease with age as a result of changes in arteries and cholesterol build-up (atherosclerosis). Decreased blood flow can rob the brain of much needed oxygen and nutrients.
- Plaque formation: Beta-amyloid plaque occurs in most people’s brains as they age. This plaque is what is thought to be responsible for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Sleep quality deteriorates: Most people experience a decrease in sleep quality as they age. This lack of good sleep negatively affects mental functioning, including memory and cognitive skills.
Now The Good News
Even though our brains are changing as we age, most older people feel that they are much smarter than when they were young (even if they lose their keys every day). Part of the reason for this is that we are always learning and that learning accumulates as we age. Yes, you are smarter than your 20-year-old son or granddaughter!
There are many positive changes that occur in the brain:
- Brain plasticity: While the trend in brain volume is downward, research demonstrates that neuroplasticity takes place well into old age. A German researcher named Janina Boyke taught elderly volunteers to juggle and noticed that their brain size increased.3Your brain has the ability to continually grow and change as long as you continue to grow and change.4
- Problem solving: Older adults are typically better at managing money, relationships, and other problems that come up in life. The ability to problem-solve gets better as you age because you have more experience and become less emotionally tied to problems.
- Optimistic: People tend to get more optimistic as they age. When asked to record their emotional states randomly chosen each day for a week, older adults scored higher than younger adults on a test of optimism.5
- Priorities: As they age, people tend to prioritize other people more than they do jobs, money, or fame. Older adults tend to spend more time with a smaller, tighter circle of close friends and this is important because social engagement is critically important for maintaining healthy cognition.
- Knowledge increases: While you may be losing some of your cognitive skills as you age, your overall knowledge is always increasing. This means you have more tools to understand your lives and express yourself.
- Emotion: Older adults have better control over their emotions than they did when they were younger.
Your brain is going to go through a lot of changes as it ages. Many of those changes can be offset by focusing on your overall health and taking care of your brain with nutrition, exercise, and continuous learning.
- Fjell AM, Walhovd KB, Fennema-Notestine C, et al. One-year brain atrophy evident in healthy aging. J Neurosci.
2009 Dec 2;29(48):15223-31. PMID: 19955375.
- Boyke J, Driemeyer J, Gaser C, Büchel C, May A. Training-induced brain structure changes in the elderly. J Neurosci. 2008 Jul 9;28(28):7031-5. PMID: 18614670.
- Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, Basak C, Szabo A, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Heo S,
Alves H, White SM, Wojcicki TR, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Feb 15;108(7):3017-22. PMID: 21282661.
- Carstensen LL, Turan B, Scheibe S, et al. Emotional experience improves with age: evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychol Aging. 2011 Mar;26(1):21-33. PMID: 20973600.
5 Nutrients to Feed Your Brain
Ancient people thought the brain was used for cooling the body but not much else.
We now know that our brains play a critical role in almost everything we do: thinking, feeling, remembering, working, playing—and even sleeping. The brain makes up only 2-3 percent of our body weight but consumes up to 20 percent of the body’s energy and oxygen.
What makes for a healthy brain for every age is a question that scientists ponder. Here is what they have discovered so far:
Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA) are one of the important nutrients commonly lacking in most people’s diets. Our brains are made primarily of fat and the omega 3 fatty acids have been correlated to:
- Improved cognitive function in older adults.1
- Positive mood.2
- Maintenance of brain structure as we age.1
Polyphenols are plant-based nutrients that have antioxidant benefits and are found in many foods that are good for us (such as grapes, chocolate, green tea, red wine). Higher polyphenol intake is associated with better language skills, verbal memory, and episodic memory.3Polyphenol-rich foods such as coffee and chocolate have been associated with improved mood and cognition.4,5
Carotenoids are also plant-based antioxidants found in foods that are good for us (such as tomatoes, carrots, green leafy vegetables). People who consume a carotenoid-rich diet have been found to have better cognitive scores than those who don’t.6
Vitamins are also important for brain health because a deficiency in almost any vitamin can lead to poor brain function.7 The nutrients that seem to be the most important for brain function include the B vitamins (B1, B3, B5, B6, B12, and choline) and also magnesium and zinc. The brain uses a large percentage of the body’s total energy and all of these nutrients play a role in the production of energy (ATP) in the body and in the synthesis of critical brain molecules. Vitamin D has received recent attention for its possible role in healthy cognition.8
We all want our brains to stay as healthy as the rest of our bodies because brain health is one of the key components of a good quality life. Focusing on the right nutrients can give our brains the edge they need to keep functioning throughout our lives. As always, include as many fruits and vegetables in your diet as possible and provide some additional nutrition assurance with a potent multivitamin and a B vitamin complex.
- Witte AV, Kerti L, Hermannstädter HM, et al. Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Brain Function and Structure in Older Adults. Cereb Cortex. 2013 Jun 24. PubMed PMID: 23796946.
- Stahl LA, Begg DP, Weisinger RS, Sinclair AJ. The role of omega-3 fatty acids in mood disorders. Curr Opin Investig Drugs. 2008 Jan;9(1):57-64. PMID: 18183532.
- Kesse-Guyot E, Fezeu L, Andreeva VA, et al. Total and specific polyphenol intakes in midlife are associated with cognitive function measured 13 years later. J Nutr. 2012 Jan;142(1):76-83. PMID: 22090468.
- Lucas M, Mirzaei F, Pan A, Okereke OI, Willett WC, O’Reilly ÉJ, Koenen K, Ascherio A. Coffee, caffeine, and risk of depression among women. Arch Intern Med. 2011 Sep 26;171(17):1571-8. PMID: 21949167.
- Sokolov AN, Pavlova MA, Klosterhalfen S, Enck P. Chocolate and the brain: Neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Jun 26. PMID: 23810791.
- Kesse-Guyot E, Andreeva VA, Ducros V, et al. Carotenoid-rich dietary patterns during midlife and subsequent cognitive function. Br J Nutr. 2013 Sep 27:1-9. PMID: 24073964.
- McCann JC, Ames BN. Is there convincing biological or behavioral evidence linking vitamin D deficiency to brain dysfunction? FASEB J. 2008 Apr;22(4):982-1001. Epub 2007 Dec 4. PMID: 18056830.