How Your Brain Changes as You Age
Everyone knows about the physical side-effects of aging. Your joints may start to ache, your muscles can become weaker, and suddenly the shelf you used to reach with no problem is just a hair out of reach. But what sort of neurological changes come with aging?
Cognitive Function and the Frontal Cortex
As we age, our brains begin to shrink. This decrease in volume is most prominent in the frontal cortex, which is the gray matter in our anterior part of the frontal lobe which plays a huge role in how humans regulate emotions, behavior, and complete complex thoughts. According to an article published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, “It has been widely found that the volume of the brain and/or its weight declines with age at a rate of around 5% per decade after age 40 with the actual rate of decline possibly increasing with age particularly over age 70,”. The decrease in volume of our frontal cortex and the surrounding area contributes to our loss of cognitive function as we age.
Memory and the Hippocampus
When it comes to memory, there are four categories that broadly encompass all different kinds of memories: episodic, sedimentary, procedural, and working memory. Episodic memory, which can be described as recalling your twenty-first birthday party, tends to decline from middle age and on. While this is true for the process of normal aging, this can also be a significant characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, however, procedural memory (such as recalling how to tie your shoe) tends to remain intact as we age.
As we age, our hippocampus also begins to atrophy. The hippocampus, as defined by a study published in the Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, is “a brain region known to play an important role in learning and memory consolidation as well as in affective behaviors and mood regulation, and where both functional and structural plasticity (e.g., neurogenesis) occur well into adulthood,”. The decreased volume of our hippocampus can lead to the decline of many cognitive functions related to memory including episodic memory, working memory, processing speed, and executive function. The shrinking of the hippocampus, which is crucial in allowing us to create new memories, is another characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
Neuron Changes Affect Us, Too
On an even smaller scale, the individual neurons in our brains can affect us as we age. As we age, our neurons shrink and the myelin that protects our axons begins to deteriorate. Our brain cells also formless connections to each other, leading to a decline in our ability to learn new things and recall old memories.
When it comes to the neuronal changes in our brain, they can be even more prominent than the structural changes (such as the shrinking of gray matter) that were mentioned before. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus once again see changes as age, but this time in relation to our dendrites, which are extensions of the cell which send and receive messages from other neurons within our body. The aging-dendrite can shrink and become less complex, resulting in impaired cognitive function.
A Final Note
While there may seem to be many ways in which our brain function begins to decline as we age, there are ways to keep your brain healthy and young for longer. Exercising regularly, quitting smoking, avoiding sugar, minimizing stress, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and getting the appropriate amount of sleep are ways in which you can care for your brain and retain your memory and cognitive function as you age.
It is also important to remember that everyone ages differently and this is true for your brain as well. Be sure to speak with your doctor or another medical professional if you have any concerns about your memory or experience issues with your cognitive function.