In our lifetimes, our brains change - what's normal brain aging?

Brain Changes As We Age

The Aging Brain: What Happens When We Get Older

Estimated Read Time: 9.5 minutes

Article Summary

We experience many brain changes as we age. Common age-related changes to the brain include mild memory loss, slower thinking speed, and difficulty learning new information. In addition, the brain's neurons, or nerve cells, decrease in number and the neural pathways, or connections between neurons, may become less efficient. The brain's ability to process information, store memory, and regulate behavior can all be affected by age-related changes.

The brain's blood flow and oxygen levels may also decline, which can lead to further cognitive decline. As we age, our brains can become more vulnerable to disease and injury along with other noticeable changes that appear later such as depression and anxiety.

But don't despair, we have some tips for keeping your brain healthy in this blog post. Changes are normal, and we'll discuss what kinds of things you can expect, from being slower at recalling names to slower reaction times to brain fog. We want to talk about what's normal aging and what's a red flag.

How does the brain change as we get older and what's normal?

What's "normal" in an aging brain?

As we get older, our bodies change - wrinkles, creaky bones, fatigue...and those dreaded "senior moments" in our thinking. There are common changes we can't see, though; one of those is an increase in the size of the ventricles and fluid-filled spaces in the brain. This is due to a decrease in the number of neurons and synapses in our brains. Less "real estate" in our brains can lead to a reduction in neurotransmitter production and activity.

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that leap across the synapses between neurons with important information - mind-to-muscle messages, memory retrieval, where your keys are, which freeway to take, and all the other minute-by-minute decisions we make in life. As we get older, the overall metabolic activity in the brain decreases too, this weakens the connections between brains' regions. On top of this, if we haven't been taking good care of our grey matter, our brain’s ability to adjust and adapt to new situations is reduced, making it more vulnerable to brain injury.

With age, we experience changes in our body chemistry and hormonal balance; the brain is affected by these, too. These can lead to changes in the structure and function of the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning. We might also notice a decline in cognitive abilities, including memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. We also lose our ability to focus, learn, and pay attention. In general, we feel like we just aren't as sharp as we used to be.

Brain changes and shrinkage over time


Changes to the Architecture and Chemistry of the Brain

There are many factors that contribute to brain changes as we age. But, getting older can lead to shrinkage! The size of the brain shrinks slightly due to a decrease in neuronal density; this means our processing speed gets slower. Older adults may find it more difficult to perform tasks that require complex cognitive processing, such as multitasking, problem-solving, and memory recall. Neurogenesis, or the production of new neurons, can decrease with age, which can lead to a decrease in plasticity and an inability to form new memories. Age-related changes to the brain can also lead to an increase in the production of inflammatory molecules, free radicals, and oxidative stress in our brains' tissues. All of these can combine to create a perfect storm that decreases our ability to function at our best.

These age-related changes also have a significant impact on our quality of life as we age. There are, however, a number of strategies to protect ourselves from age-related decline; we'll discuss those in a minute. But in our older years, more than most times in our lives, we need to maintain a schedule of visiting our healthcare professionals. Regular visits to the doctor can help identify age-related cognitive changes early and allow for early intervention. By understanding the changes that occur in the brain as we age, we can better prepare ourselves to age gracefully and maybe even be that person who wows all the whippersnappers.

The first years of our life see massive brain growth. Our brains develop quickly, and we are constantly learning. This creates tons of neural connections, wrinkles/added surface area for our brains to store information, and lots of neurotransmitter activity. By our early twenties, the brain is at its peak in terms of processing and storing information, as well as its ability to think creatively. However, as we age, the brain becomes more efficient in processing information, but its ability to store new information and think creatively decreases. This is due to a decrease in brain plasticity, or the ability to learn and adapt.

Changes in our bodies and brains over a lifetime

We also experience cognitive changes due to a decrease in the number of neurons in the brain, as well as a weakening of existing connections between these neurons. Neurons in the brain are constantly being generated and replaced, but this production slows down as we age - especially if we don't have the right resources to feed our brains. This leads to fewer neurons in the brain. This result of fewer neurons and weakened connections is impaired communication between our neurons; we refer to this as cognitive decline.

Besides memory loss and difficulty learning, the loss of neurons in certain areas of the brain leads to other problems with our vision, balance, and hearing. It is important to note that these changes are natural, but there are steps that can be taken to prevent or slow down the progression of these changes. These changes don't have to be written in stone!

The anatomy of a neuron and neurotransmitters

Our brains are also a complex dance of electrical and chemical messages. Getting older can mean those chemical reactions in the brain slow down, resulting in decreased communication between neural pathways. This impacts the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, robbing us of motivation, memories, joy, and a positive feeling about life. Additionally, the brain's ability to produce new neural connections decreases, leading to decreased plasticity, or the brain's ability to adapt to new information and experiences. The production of our cortical and hippocampal neurons starts to wane. Finally, the brain's production of myelin, an insulating layer that helps to protect and strengthen neural pathways, slows down, leading to decreased coordination and slower response times. These changes kind of sneak up on us until one day, we find them noticeable and hard to deal with! Understanding what is happening in the brain can help us cope with and manage these changes and reduce our fears that something REALLY BIG is wrong.

Unfortunately, as we age, our brains also become more vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases such as MS, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's, and dementia. There are ways to be proactive to protect the brain from age-related decline. This can include engaging in activities that challenge the brain, such as reading, puzzles, or learning a new skill. Eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of sleep, and staying physically active can also help keep the brain healthy. Avoiding environmental threats like smoking, pesticides, unhealthy food additives, and other contaminants are also important steps we can take to protect our brains.

Another Problem: Your Brain Shrinks

Brain shrinkage is a normal part of aging, and it’s something that happens to everyone. As we age, our brains shrink due to the natural process of aging and the wear and tear of life. The brain's volume decreases because the brain loses cells and connections between neurons. When we suffer from extreme shrinkage, it can be a signal we need to address diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Researchers are studying ways to slow down the brain shrinkage that comes with aging. Some studies suggest that lifestyle habits, such as physical activity, a healthy diet, and mental stimulation, may slow down the process of brain shrinkage. Regular physical exercise has been linked to increased brain size and improved cognitive function, while a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and collagen has been linked to improved brain health. Additionally, activities such as reading, doing puzzles, and playing games can help keep your mind sharp and help protect against cognitive decline.

When our brains shrink, hippocampal and coronal areas of the brain along with the vesicle areas become larger and we lose brain volume

One of the most significant changes that contributes to brain shrinkage is the loss of neurons and synapses; these are the connections between neurons. As we age, the slowing down and alterations of our lifestyles means these connections are weakened, resulting in decreased cognitive function. Neurons talk to each other using neurotransmitters. These chemical messengers carry information throughout the brain and body. Without an adequate supply of neurotransmitters, we lose neural activities and our brain's processing speed becomes lower. Without proper nutrition, the brain's protective myelin sheath, which helps to insulate neurons, can begin to deteriorate too. This affects the activity in our neurons and contributes to inaccurate neural messaging. We start to see the consequences of this in our weird aches and pains, and fuzzy thinking. If we take time to invest in our brain health with physical, mental, and nutritional support, we can keep our brains at near-full volume and keep our neurons growing and firing at optimal speed.

11 Tips For A Healthier Brain

As promised, here are tips for maintaining a healthy brain for your overall well-being, brain health, and sharp cognitive performance. Investing time in some or all of these strategies will ensure that you when you have more sunsets behind you than in front of you, you can still appreciate them and experience joy in your days.

11 Tips for a Healthy Brain As You Age

Regular Exercise

Engaging in physical activity not only keeps your body fit but also supports brain health. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, delivering oxygen and essential nutrients necessary for proper functioning. It also stimulates the release of chemicals that enhance mood and reduce stress, both of which contribute to a healthy brain.

Mental Stimulation

Challenging your brain with mentally stimulating activities is crucial for maintaining its health and preventing cognitive decline. Activities such as reading, puzzles, learning new skills, and playing games can help improve memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities.
Healthy Diet: Consuming a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats doesn't have great implications for your waistline and your immune system only; it also provides the necessary nutrients for optimal brain function and positive brain changes as we age. A good diet can outwit the brain aging we have learned to accept as "normal." Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds, are particularly beneficial for brain health. Avoiding excessive sugar and processed foods is also important, as they contribute to inflammation and can impair cognitive function and neurological health.

Quality Sleep

Sleep is essential for the brain to rest, recharge, and consolidate memories. Lack of quality sleep can lead to decreased cognitive function, memory problems, and increased risk of cognitive disorders. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to support optimal brain health. Using collagen can help improve your sleep because it is high in l-glycine; and now Health Direct has the first liquid collagen to include l-tryptophan too! And here's an added tip: Bedtime is the BEST time to take your collagen!

Stress Management

Chronic stress can have detrimental effects on the brain, increasing the risk of cognitive decline and mental health disorders. Engaging in stress-reducing activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or spending time in nature can help protect the brain from the damaging effects of stress.

Social Engagement

Maintaining strong social connections and engaging in social activities has been linked to better cognitive function and a reduced risk of cognitive decline. Interacting with others stimulates the brain, improves mood, and provides opportunities for learning and mental stimulation.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

Excessive alcohol consumption can damage brain cells and lead to cognitive impairment. Limiting alcohol intake or avoiding it altogether is essential for maintaining a healthy brain.

Quit Smoking

Smoking is detrimental to overall health, including brain health. It increases the risk of stroke, dementia, and cognitive decline. Quitting smoking not only improves your overall health but also protects your brain.

Manage Chronic Conditions

Chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Managing these conditions through a healthy lifestyle and medical treatment can help protect brain health.

Continual Learning

Lifelong learning is an excellent way to keep your brain active and healthy. Engage in activities that challenge your mind, such as taking up a new hobby, learning a musical instrument, or enrolling in classes or workshops.

Use Brain-Building Supplements

There are some very exciting new developments in brain health! Brain-building supplements called nootropics can help increase Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor so that your brain makes more connections again. We have developed a new form of collagen called aminomind® nootropic collagen that provides optimal amounts of key peptides that feed the brain as well as supplying vital amino acids that increase oxygen flow and neurotransmitter production.

It's Never Too Late To Build Healthy Brain Connections - Here's How

It's Never Too Late To Take Action On How Our Brain Changes As We Age

As our bodies age, so too does our brain. With age, the brain can shrink in volume, especially in the frontal cortex, where critical thinking and decision-making processes occur. This natural decline can affect memory, comprehension, and the ability to perform complex tasks -- but it doesn't have to; we can be proactive in guarding the health of our grey matter. Neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to form new neural connections, can be rejuvenated.

Moreover, the white matter, responsible for communication between different brain regions, which often shows signs of wear and slower cognitive speeds can build new neuronal connections and structures with the right brain building materials. In short, it's never too late! By investing in your brain health right now, you can continue to maintain and rebuild strong cognitive functions beyond just genetics. Your lifestyle choices, brain exercises, and dietary choices make a difference. We truly can be proactive in affecting how our brain changes as we age.


About the Author

Lisa Moretti is a Certified Health Coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the largest nutrition school in the world. She was at the top of her cohort in 2015. She's been involved in the natural health and supplement world professionally since 1981.

 *These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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