As you enter midlife, your brain changes in understated but measurable ways. The brain's overall size begins to shrink when you’re in your 30s or 40s, and the rate of shrinkage increases once you reach age 60.
Brain shrinkage doesn’t happen to all areas of the brain at once. Some areas shrink more and faster than others, and brain shrinkage is likely to get more severe as you get older.
While there is no way to stop aging, you can help support your brain health by staying active, eating healthy, and talking with your doctor about any challenges or concerns.
Is Brain Shrinkage Normal as You Age?
It's completely normal to experience changes in your brain as you age.
Your cerebral cortex, the wrinkled outer layer of the brain, gets thinner as you age. It's especially noticeable in the frontal lobe, which processes memory, emotions, impulse control, problem-solving, social interaction, and motor function. Thinning can also be noticeable in parts of the temporal lobe, which is located behind the ears and helps people understand words, speak, read, write, and connect words with their meanings.
The parts of the brain that are the last to mature during adolescence are the first to start to age and shrink. Some refer to this as a "last in, first out" theory. In short, the last parts of the brain to develop as you're growing up are the first to decline in old age.
The parts of the brain that shrink contain important nerve fibers (tube-like structures that carry information from your brain to the rest of your body and from your body back to the spinal cord and brain). When your brain shrinks, there are fewer connections between neurons, and the neurotransmitter systems that communicate information from the brain to different parts of the body change, resulting in numerous complications.
All of these factors play a role in the aging process and age-related cognitive decline.
What Changes to Expect with Brain Shrinkage
As your brain changes and shrinks, you may feel like it's affecting your mental function. Even healthy older adults may experience:
How to Support Your Brain Health as You Age
As you get older, there are things you can do to support your brain health and help prevent cognitive decline.
Get physically active every day. Getting exercise increases blood flow to your entire body, especially your brain. Experts also believe that regular exercise can help reduce stress and depression and improve memory.
Eat healthy. Did you know that eating a heart-healthy diet also benefits your brain? Foods like fresh fruits, fish, lean meat, and skinless chicken are all good options.
As you get older, it’s best to avoid overusing alcohol, as too much can lead to memory issues and confusion.
Stay mentally active. Activities like reading, playing word games, taking up a new hobby, enrolling in classes, or learning how to play an instrument are all great ways to stay mentally active. Consistent mental activity can help keep your memory and thought processing in good shape.
Stay social. Keeping up with friends and family is not only enjoyable, but it also helps ward off depression and stress. You may want to try volunteering or joining an organization so you get the satisfaction of helping people while maintaining positive social interaction.
Keep an eye on cardiovascular disease. Medical diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes can increase your risk of cognitive decline. Talk with your doctor about treatment options and how they can help.
Quit smoking. Smoking is not only bad for your lungs, but it may also contribute to cognitive decline as you age. Quitting helps your body stay healthy.
Different forms of the vitamin B are important for supporting your brain health as you age. Vitamin B helps prevent medical conditions like dementia and boosts neurotransmitter production. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that deliver messages between neurons in your brain and your body.
Without vitamin B, older adults are at greater risk of brain shrinkage and cognitive decline, which could include neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
Most foods contain some form of vitamin B, and eating a well-balanced, healthy diet will usually provide you with the vitamins you need.
A few fun ways to incorporate vitamin B into your diet include:
- Taking a vitamin B supplement
- Putting black beans or chickpeas in your salad
- Adding kidney or pinto beans to your chili
- Dipping chips or carrots in hummus (hummus is made from chickpeas)
- Incorporating tofu into your meal plan
Some medical conditions make it difficult for you to absorb vitamin B, which may make supplements necessary. Consult your medical provider before taking supplements or vitamins.