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How Your Brain Changes as You Age

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Your joints feel weaker. You don’t run as fast as you used to. Even listening to, remembering, and contributing to a conversation feels tiresome. As you get old, these are some challenges you may face. But it is important to remember that you are not alone. Ageing is inevitable for everyone. 

However, there are ways to slow down the mental and physical impacts of getting old. Like in every instance where life presents difficult circumstances, the first step is acceptance.  

Only when you accept your body’s changes, can you get the help it needs. So here are some ways your brain changes as you age and recommendations to stay mentally fit regardless.

Physical brain changes and their cognitive effects

Here are three physical brain changes researchers believe occur during ageing and their cognitive impacts.

Size shrinkage

Beginning at around age 60–70, certain areas of the brain reduce in mass. These include the frontal lobe and hippocampus, which are responsible for higher executive function and memory. 

Therefore, remembering something you have committed to memory or learning new things may become difficult as you age. Also, multitasking may be more complicated than previously, as your brain may process things slowly.

Interestingly, although common, memory issues are not given in ageing adults. Studies that have tested declarative memory – names, dates, places, facts, events your brain has stored – reveal that one-fifth of adults above 70 perform just as well as 20-year-olds.

Changes in neural connections

The deepest part of the brain contains white matter, a system of neural connections joining the brain’s four lobes (frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital). It consists of myelinated nerve fibres, which are extensions of nerve cells (neurons) responsible for transmitting nerve signals between brain cells.

Researchers believe that the myelin sheath atop the nerve fibres shrinks as we age, reducing the speed of nerve signals transmitted. In other words, the brain’s cells simply can’t communicate with each other and those residing in other parts of the body as quickly as they used to. The cognitive consequence of this is usually slower processing and function.

A reduction in neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that play a significant role in communication between the neurons in the brain and in other parts of the body. They carry essential information regarding mood, memory, and movement, crucial to a healthily functioning human being.

Unfortunately, as you age, the brain begins to produce fewer of these chemicals, leading to cognitive and memory decline. In addition, a decrease in mood-regulating hormones such as serotonin and dopamine production may lead to depression in older adults.

How to stay mentally fit even as you age?

Realising that your brain undergoes physical change as you get older is daunting. However, it is only through studying the neural basis of cognitive decline that researchers have made discoveries regarding its prevention and ways it can be delayed.

Here are four scientifically grounded recommendations to retain your mental fitness even as you age.

Remain socially engaged

Did you know that loneliness accelerates aging more than smoking? Indeed, social isolation enables an ageing individual to lose speech and memory-related skills more quickly than usual. That’s because every skill requires practice, and when we limit our social interaction, we deprive our brain of that practice.

Luckily, with the advent of retirement villages (see this Australian gold coast example), you don’t need to look further than your neighbourhood to find social engagement. These communities, designed to facilitate ageing adults, contain shared spaces, volunteer opportunities, and community activities that help create a supportive and enjoyable social environment.

Keep your brain active

Engaging in intellectually stimulating activities can help maintain cognitive abilities even as you get older. 

While reading and writing are the most commonly featured in doctors’ recommendations to ageing adults, a new study by the Chinese Academy of Science has revealed that musical training also helps preserve youthful neural connections. 

So, making beautiful music may not be the only thing instruments are useful for.

Eat a nourishing diet

Research has linked adequate nutrient intake with healthy cognitive function in ageing adults. This means that a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can help you curb the effects of ageing. 

Stay physically active

Exercise isn’t only recommended for its aesthetic and cardiovascular benefits. It is essential for our mental well-being as well. In fact, merely 6 minutes of high-intensity exercise could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. 

That’s because when you exercise, your brain increases the production of neurotrophins as well as its blood flow. This compels it to produce new connections and catalyses the delivery of oxygen to existing brain cells.  

Bottom line

It is crucial to remember that everyone’s different, and we are nowhere close to figuring out every aspect of the vastly complex human brain. 

However, understanding how our brain changes with time can help us slow or prevent its deterioration and thus make the prospect of ageing a little less terrifying.

Ellen Diamond, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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