The brain starts to shrink as we age. Can we delay the shrinkage?
It’s no secret that we physically shrink as we get older, but did you know that your brain (yes, your brain) is also getting smaller?
Before you panic, it’s important to know that age-related shrinkage is normal. But if you want to get a head start on improving your brain health, here’s what to do.
When your brain starts to shrink
Most studies indicate that brain volume starts to change in your 30s or 40s; however, “it’s in your 60s or 70s that we start to see more promenade atrophy, or changes in the brain happening, both in normal aging and in disease related,” says Dr. Charles Bernick, staff neurologist at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
“We know that normally with age, brain volume declines in a somewhat predictable manner. The weight of the brain declines 5% per decade after the age of 40,” he continues. “That’s due to a combination of loss of cells, degeneration of fibers, reduction in volume of the cells themselves.”
Why your brain starts to shrink
There is a difference between age-related shrinking of the brain, or atrophy, and disease-related shrinking. The concern, according to Bernick, comes into play when the shrinkage is more than what you would expect for age because it can reflect a disease process, whether it’s due to vascular changes in the brain, or a disease like Alzheimer’s.
While there’s no way to monitor brain atrophy due to normal aging, symptoms to look for include changes in mental function, such as memory loss, difficulty with problem solving or finding words.
“Atrophy is only uncovered if you become symptomatic, such as having changes in your memory or cognitive function,” explains Bernick. “Those would be the reasons to have brain imaging done, where you might pick up shrinkage or atrophy.
Symptoms would trigger an evaluation, such as an MRI brain scan, to detect atrophy. There are also automated tools that can determine whether certain volumes are outside the expected range for age, he says.
Ways to maximize your brain health
While it’s not possible to prevent normal brain aging, there are strategies you can use to maximize your brain health and help reduce your risk of developing disease, such as Alzheimer’s. These methods include:
Diets that are rich in antioxidants, such as a Mediterranean diet
Staying mentally engaged
Getting proper sleep
Attending to other vascular risk factors, such as monitoring and managing blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes
Refraining from smoking
Although some sources claim that brain health supplements, such as creatine and omega-3 supplements can help, Bernick says the science is “murky at best.”
“Our recommendation would be to focus on proper nutrition and getting vitamins and minerals through diet,” he says. “Eating a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats should be your first approach. It’s only if you’re deficient in certain vitamins or minerals that you should look toward supplements.”