Keep your brain sharp - how your brain works and the effects of aging

How Your Brain Works and How The Aging Process Affects It


Unlocking the Mysteries of the Aging Brain to Keep Your Brain Sharp

Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes

Welcome to the labyrinth of the human brain! Our brains are:

  • The master controllers of our bodies.
  • The architects of our thoughts.
  • The keepers of our memories.

Much like the most sophisticated computer, it processes and stores a wide range of information, allowing us to learn, grow, and interact with the world around us. But what happens to this vital organ as we age? In this blog post, we'll explore how your brain works and how aging affects it - from cognitive performance to neural plasticity to the physical shrinking of your brain as you age. We'll look at what you can do to improve your brain's communication systems, maintain your brain's mass, and keep your brain well-nourished so you stay sharp at any age.

How Your Brain Works And How The Aging Process Affects It

Our brains are remarkable organs composed of billions of neurons that enable us to learn, remember, and process information. Neurons transmit and receive electrical signals, which are responsible for the working of our brain. There are four main areas in the brain – the cerebrum, the cerebellum, the brainstem, and the hippocampus.

The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain and is responsible for higher-level thinking, planning, and problem-solving. The cerebellum is responsible for movement and coordination, while the brainstem controls basic body functions such as heartbeat, breathing, and digestion. The hippocampus is located deep within the brain and is responsible for forming memories. Because of their different manifestations, certain brain/neurological diseases are rooted in specific brain regions. Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and MS are all associated with specific areas of brain function.

One of the key aspects affected by the passage of time is the production of neurotransmitters within the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that facilitate communication between neurons, playing a critical role in everything from our movement to our mood. As we grow older, the synthesis of these vital substances can slow down, influencing how effectively our brain cells communicate with each other and impacting numerous cognitive functions. It can potentially contribute to the common symptoms associated with aging, such as memory lapses and reduced mental agility that we experience as a decline in memory and cognitive abilities. This root cause is the decrease in the number of neurons in the brain, which leads to a decline in the speed at which we learn and process information. Additionally, the brain's ability to repair itself can also decrease with age, meaning that older people may be more prone to developing issues such as dementia.

Fortunately, the brain, with the right help, can still learn and form new connections between neurons. Techniques, such as meditation and memory games, help to keep the brain active and healthy as we age. Engaging the brain in mentally stimulating activities improves its function, allowing us to stay sharp and spry as we age.

Aging Is NOT a Form of Dementia

The aging of our brains can have a dramatic impact on our memory, concentration, problem-solving skills, multitasking capabilities, and mood. Memory loss is the most common symptom of an aging brain. It can range from forgetting simple words to forgetting entire conversations or events. Difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks, slower response time, or "brain fog," and a decline in problem-solving skills or difficulty reasoning out complex decisions can also be indicators of an aging brain. Changes in mood or behavior, such as increased irritability or depression, can also be present, as well as changes in the sense of smell and taste. Difficulty multitasking is another symptom of an aging brain, as the brain is not able to process multiple tasks at the same time as efficiently as it could before.

These changes can be challenging to adjust to, but they aren't a sign of dementia. Understanding how your brain works and how aging affects it can help you make proactive decisions, spot outlandish information, and keep your brain healthy and functioning at its best.

Brain areas effected by different neurodegenerative diseases

What IS Normal In An Aging Brain?

It's hard not to get nervous about growing old - physical changes are a nuisance, the constant background noises about dementia we see and hear in the media are unnerving, and it's annoying to lose your keys all the time or forget why you just walked into the kitchen...for the fifth time.

Some things about aging and our brain are to be expected. Your brain is an organ, and it will naturally shrink over time. The good news is that you can determine how much! Another bright spot is that your brain needs fat and cholesterol (sterols from meat), so while you want to monitor your diet, some foods may have been on your "Don't List" in the past that you can bring back with moderation. And good old-fashioned "brain foods" like fatty fish have proven essential for an aging brain. Walnuts are especially good for brain health, along with avocados, high-antioxidant berries, green tea, and leafy green vegetables.

Brain Nourishing Foods

So, let's dial down the fear factor about getting old and its impact on our brains. Knowledge is power, and when we can evaluate our own lives, habits, and diets, we have a great starting place for ensuring we are mentally fit well into old age.

Here are some basics about the human adult brain: it weighs about 3 pounds in the average adult (sorry, Jerry Maguire kid). Your brain is about 60% fat, with the remaining 40% being a combination of protein, carbohydrates, water, and salts. The brain itself isn't a muscle, but it is an organ. Your brain contains blood vessels and nerves, including neurons and glial cells. It is also surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid, which allows your brain to float in your skull and acts as a padding/buffer against your skull's bony surfaces. Also, because your brain is made of fat, it is vulnerable to "oxidative insults." The body's natural intelligence creates protection for your brain through a combination of antioxidants and enzymes that only allow "approved" nutrients to access your brain.

Below are the common areas of change we will all experience as we grow older, along with recent revelations about our brains, cognitive performance, and some neuromyths. The earlier you can take a proactive approach to keeping your brain healthy and well-connected, the bigger the long-term payoff. We'll look at some of the simple things you can add to your daily routine, no matter how old you are right now, that you can be confident will act as an "insurance policy" for your later years.

Cognitive Changes

As we age, our brains may become less efficient at processing and retrieving information, leading to an impaired ability to recall memories and learn new tasks. Interestingly, long-term memories are often less affected. That's why you can remember your grade school friend's phone number, but you end up searching high and low for your glasses.

The aging process can affect cognitive functions such as decision-making and problem-solving, with a decrease in speed and accuracy. Aging can also mess with our ability to focus and concentrate, as well as change our communication skills like language and writing. Our executive functions, such as planning and multitasking, can also be affected by the aging process. Aging also can lead to changes in our mood and the ability to regulate our emotions - the classic "Get Off My Lawn" meme.

Remember, the effects of aging on cognition can vary from person to person - there's no standard way it happens. But there definitely are some proven ways we can combat cognitive decline. We will discuss some proactive ways to stay sharp in a minute.

Structural Changes

The human brain is an incredibly powerful organ, and its ability to process information and store memories is unparalleled. However, as we age, our brains become less efficient at processing information, and structural changes can lead to memory problems and difficulty learning new things.

One of the most significant changes to the brain as we age is our production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters facilitate communication between neurons, so fewer of them can lead to memory problems, slower thinking, and difficulty learning new things. Our brain's ability to repair and renew itself can also be slowed, which affects memory and reasoning. It is important to note that although aging does inevitably lead to some cognitive decline, there are ways to protect your brain and minimize the effects of aging on your cognitive abilities.

Eating a balanced diet and engaging in regular physical activity, including aerobic exercise, can help keep your brain healthy, and building new nerve cell and synaptic connections by engaging in activities such as reading, puzzles, learning new things, and other sensory inputs can help keep your brain youthful.

Neuronal Changes

As we age, the neurons in our brains become less connected, resulting in a decline in memory, problem-solving, and other cognitive skills. As part of the normal aging process, neurons can lose neuronal plasticity and their ability to create new connections and transmit signals. This means our brain regions can lose the ability to process information and respond quickly.

When neurons become less active, they can become more vulnerable to damage from toxins, inflammation, and other age-related changes. As neurons become less efficient at repairing damage, we have an increased risk of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Scientists have also found that oxidative stress (similar to rusting within our cells) and damage to DNA in our neurons can accumulate and degrade the integrity of our neurons. This is another reason that antioxidants are so important to brain health!

Brain Shrinkage

As we age, our brains shrink, and the neurons and nerve fibers start to die off. This loss of neurons is associated with decreased cognitive functioning, such as slower communication pathways and decreased neurogenesis, making it more difficult to process information and learn new things. Interestingly, when our brains are plump, they are also very wrinkled, which increases the surface area for neuronal communications. Brain shrinkage and smoothing interfere with the way our neurons communicate with each other as we get older. Additionally, the brain's levels of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, also decline with age, which can lead to mood disturbances. Finally, the brain's ability to regulate its temperature can decrease, leading to feeling fatigued and confused.

These changes in the brain can start as early as our 20s and can accelerate as we get into our 40s. Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits, such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and maintaining healthy eating habits, is vital to help keep the brain functioning at its best. Additionally, engaging in environmental enrichment activities that stimulate the brain, such as puzzles, musical training, dancing, or learning new skills with friends, helps preserve cognitive health and ensure optimal brain health as we age.

Neurogenesis

Just 20 years ago, it was commonly held that you are born with a set number of brain cells and that many of our daily activities and aging meant we were running through them at lightning speed. Not only has that been proven wrong, but scientists have discovered your brain can make new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis.

An intriguing development in neuroscience is the potential of coffeeberry extract to help stimulate the generation of fresh neurons in the brain. Recent studies indicate that the natural compounds found in coffeeberry extract may hold a key to combating age-related cognitive decline. Coffeeberry extract, which comes from the fruit of the coffee plant, contains powerful antioxidants known for their neuroprotective properties. This exciting discovery suggests that regular coffeeberry extract consumption encourages neurogenesis and provides neuroprotective nutrients.

What Happens in an Aging Brain

Recent Discoveries In Brain Aging

You've probably wondered, "What changes are taking place within my gray matter as time ticks on?" and, "How are these changes going to affect my daily life?" Recent research suggests that the aging brain decreases in volume and increases in thickness in certain regions.

Aging is also associated with a decrease in the number of neurons and connections between neurons, as well as a decrease in the speed of processing and the ability to learn and remember. There's also evidence that connections between our neurons can get gummy with accumulated cellular waste. The recent discovery of the glymphatic system may be a key to mental sharpness as we age.

But we've also learned about the brain's adaptability, which can mitigate the impacts of aging. Engaging in mentally challenging activities such as learning a new language, playing musical instruments, or solving puzzles can reinforce neural circuits and even forge new routes of cognitive processing. Neuroplasticity underlies the brain's remarkable ability to reshape itself in response to injury or the demands placed upon it, even as we grow older.

By continually challenging our brains with new and complex tasks, we may bolster our cognitive reserves, essentially 'future-proofing' our brains against the inevitable decline. Incorporating these activities into daily routines is a practical and accessible strategy toward healthy brain aging, providing a hopeful message that our mental fitness is, to some extent, within our control.

One easy thing you can do in your everyday chores is to start using your non-dominant hand. This is a challenge to your brain and to our natural mind-to-muscle pathways of least resistance. Start with just brushing your teeth or stirring your coffee. It may be a bit comical at first, but remember, it's like learning the task for the first time for your brain. Be patient. Have a good laugh, which, by the way, is also good for your brain.

Certain nutritional elements stand out for their ability to reach the brain effectively in the intricate dance of maintaining brain health. A good multivitamin is hands-down the best place to start!

Antioxidants are essential for your brain's ongoing health. Choosing foods that have rich, vibrant colors ensures you're getting great antioxidants. Those colors are used by fruits and vegetables as a form of protection, so the more intense, the better they are for you. Pick up a copy of Jo Robinson's Eating On the Wild Side to learn more about how to get the most from your antioxidant-rich foods.

There are also some new and exciting things in the research right now. Coffeeberry extract and an innovative type of concentrated liquid collagen micropeptides work hand in hand to feed the brain and encourage new neuronal connections within a half hour of being ingested. And their benefits are cumulative over time! These substances are adept at traversing the blood-brain barrier—that crucial checkpoint that shields the brain from harmful substances—while bypassing the protective enzymes encasing the brain that become too protective as we age. These are exciting and groundbreaking advances in improving our cognitive performance.

Our brains also possess a specialized waste removal network akin to the body's lymphatic system, which I mentioned earlier, called the glymphatic system. It's tasked with eliminating aging cells and byproducts of cellular activity. This brain-cleansing process primarily occurs during sleep. As we grow older, our sleep patterns often deteriorate or become disrupted. It seems insomnia and non-specific anxiety haunt our sleeping hours. Without the deep sleep required for optimal functioning of this system, waste materials can accumulate in our brain tissue, put undue pressure on our brain's cleansing pathways, and begin gumming up our neuronal connections and the integrity of our gray matter.

Cleaning up a dirty brain is essential, but the challenge of getting good sleep so the glymphatic system can kick in may seem impossible. Recent research has shown that collagen, which contains the amino acid l-glycine, helps us to sleep more deeply, which creates more time for our brain's clean-up job.

Collagen also contains l-tryptophan, which encourages us to drift off to sleep more easily, and l-citrulline, which improves blood flow in the brain. But not any collagen will do! Most collagen you can buy comes in a powdered form and isn't well broken down (hydrolyzed), so the collagen molecules are still relatively large. This means your body must do the work to digest it.

Most of our older bodies also lose their digestive efficiency. So, having to break down collagen in the limited transit time of the digestive system or being left undigested because of a lowered stomach acid content means you aren't getting the benefits you need.

Luckily, there's a medical-grade version of collagen in a liquid form that requires no digestion at all. It immediately enters the bloodstream and provides the high-nitrogen amino acids your brain craves. Even more exciting is the new collagen peptides created that are far more potent in a smaller dose. They also are the perfect carrier for other nutrients to help your brain health, neuroplasticity, and mental sharpness.

The brain's glymphatic system displayed and why it is important to healthy aging

Another way to promote your brain making new connections is to exercise it. Doing mentally stimulating activities such as puzzles, crosswords, and reading can help keep your brain sharp and alert. Learning new skills or a language can foster neural connections and enhance cognitive resilience.

Your brain's plasticity allows it to adapt and grow as you age, meaning it's never too late to challenge yourself mentally. Staying socially active is also important for brain health. Participating in social activities can help keep your brain healthy and alert. Additionally, staying physically active with regular exercise can help delay the onset of age-related cognitive decline, as well as keep your body and joints pain-free and in working order.

Monitoring your mental health is also essential to safeguarding your brain's health, particularly as it ages. Elevated stress can hinder your cognitive abilities and memory, making it crucial to identify effective stress-management techniques and incorporate relaxation into your routine. When it comes to staying sharp, several areas of the brain play a role. Your physician can help you monitor changes.

The hippocampus, responsible for memory and learning, is one of the most affected parts of the brain when it comes to aging. As we age, the brain's neurons and synapses slow down, making it harder to process and recall information. This can lead to difficulty in recalling memories and learning new things. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for executive functions and decision-making, is another area of the brain affected by aging. As we age, our ability to make decisions and process complex information may become more difficult. The cerebellum, which plays a role in motor coordination and balance, also experiences some decline with age. This can lead to difficulties in physical exercise and activities, such as walking and balance.

By keeping a consistent schedule of health check-ups with your physician, you can monitor changes and proactively address your brain health with your healthcare professional.

What is Normal Aging vs. a Brain-related Health Issue?

The human brain is a remarkable and intricate command center responsible for regulating vital functions such as respiration and circulation, as well as influencing our feelings and actions. However, as we journey through life, our brains experience a natural transformation that can impact our physical and mental capacities.

The passage of time isn't just marked by the pages on a calendar — it's also reflected in the natural transformations that occur within our brains. Aging is an inevitable process, and with it comes a series of adjustments in how our minds operate. Normal aging can cause changes in our behavior and personality. Still, these changes tend to be more gradual and less severe than those associated with brain-related health issues. In addition, brain-related health issues can cause problems with walking, speaking, and problem-solving, while normal aging may result in slower reaction times and a decrease in short-term memory.

Brain Fog

One of the most common signals of brain aging is brain fog, which manifests as forgetfulness, confusion, and a lack of mental clarity. Sometimes, you just feel a little "fuzzy." This mental murkiness can be annoying and prolong our daily activities. But confounding factors like stress, lack of sleep, and poor diet can increase our brain fog. We just can't party all night eating bar food and then be on our game the following day. Disappointing! Our brains undergo structural changes that play a part in brain fog, like shrinkage and a decline in the production of neurotransmitters. The good news is that while brain fog is tedious and annoying, you can take proactive measures to reduce it, and, in general, it isn't a red flag.

What are common signs of brain fog

Brain Aging Signals To Monitor Closely

Brain-related health issues can cause problems with coordination, memory, balance, vision, and speech. Memory problems associated with brain-related health issues tend to be more severe and occur more quickly than those associated with normal aging. Brain-related health issues can also cause more rapid changes in personality, behavior, and the ability to think clearly. Brain fog recall issues usually resolve themselves within half an hour or so; being completely befuddled (for example, not recognizing people, places, or things or getting lost in a frequently visited place) is different and requires attention.

Brain Health Red Flags

These 'Brain Health Red Flags' are outside the norm. They encompass symptoms such as memory lapses that disrupt daily life, difficulty in completing familiar tasks, confusion and agitation with time or place, trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships, as well as new problems with words in speaking or writing. Additionally, misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace your steps or decreased or poor judgment can also be signals worth paying attention to. Another telltale sign is shadowing. This can be a slow and subtle change, but it is often a signal of the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's.

Neuromyths

There is a lot of misinformation to sift through when you use "Dr. Google" to understand your brain's changes. Most of these neuromyths are based on outdated or incomplete information. They can be perpetuated by popular media, especially with the rise of AI. The idea that the left brain is the seat of logical thought and the right brain is the seat of creativity is one example of a common neuromyth. The notion that we only use 10% of our brains is another. Another common neuromyth is that our cognitive abilities always decline as we age. While it is true that certain aspects of cognitive skills, such as memory and reaction time, may decline as we age, research has shown that other aspects, such as experience and problem-solving skills, may actually improve with age.

Remember, neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to create new pathways and continue optimizing its neuronal connections when we maintain good brain nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits, ensures that we literally can teach our "old dog" selves new tricks! Exciting new nutrients like coffeeberry extract and new innovations in collagen ensure we can keep our brains healthy, wrinkly, well-connected, and firing on all four lobes efficiently. So many exciting innovations are emerging in brain health and healthy aging!

A healthy, dynamic brain full of connections and wrinkles at any age

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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. Some product recommendations result in a small affiliate payment from amazon.com.

*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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