Aging and your Brain

With an increasing number of active seniors, there is more and more interest in how their brains may change as time goes on.  Will your brain be improving; will it stay the same; or will you see a decline.  You’ll be pleased to hear that it’s not all bad news.

The Aging Brain

That was the title of a recent PBS program in a series on the brain.  There was certainly a message of hope there:

Overturning decades of dogma, scientists recently discovered that even into our seventies, our brains continue producing new neurons. Scientists no longer hold the longstanding belief that we lose vast numbers of brain cells as we grow older. The normal aging process leaves most mental functions intact, and may even provide the brain with unique advantages that form the basis for wisdom. The aging brain is also far more resilient than was previously believed.

A NPR item summarized the principal advantage: The Aging Brain Is Less Quick, But More Shrewd

Brain researcher Gary Small from UCLA gave some bad news first:

Reaction time is slower.  It takes us longer to learn new information. Sometimes it takes us longer to retrieve information, so we have that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon — where you almost have that word or that thought. That’s typical of the middle-age brain.

However you may find his good news outweighs the bad.

Complex reasoning skills improve, and we’re able to anticipate problems and reason things out better than when we were young.

Another area of improvement as we age is empathy — that is the ability to understand the emotional point of view of another. Empathy increases as we age.

You can also do some activities to accentuate the positive. 

Both physical exercise and cognitive brain training contribute to brain health. Small, 58, does a New York Times crossword and numbers puzzle every morning, as well as a series of toning and stretching exercises and at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day.

How to maintain a healthy brain

A more detailed article by a Stanford biostatistician talks about saving your aging brain.  Michael Walker, PhD, a consulting professor at Stanford’s Center for Biomedical Informatics Research, gives a course exploring how genetics and lifestyle choices influence cognitive decline and methods for slowing or reversing the process.  Here are some of the topics covered in the course.

  • Genetics plays a role and some genetic variants may increase the risk of rapid decline
  • Much of the decline is caused by choices we make about food, exercise, supplements, stress and other factors.
  • Meditation can be helpful but the role of meditation is indirect, primarily through stress reduction. Alzheimer’s may occur sooner or be made worse by a life of stress.
  • Your brain recognizes physical activity as a stimulus for your entire brain not just the part required to control movement. So when you feel stressed do some physical activity and save your brain.
  • Total caloric intake dramatically affects both lifespan and cognitive decline. Reducing calories by 20 percent gives about a 10 percent to 20 percent extension in lifespan. In the island of Okinawa in Japan, more people live to over 100 years of age than anywhere else in the world. Caloric restriction appears to be one of the most important reasons for this.
  • Saturated fats and hydrogenated fats are bad for your brain.
  • Many studies in animals show that high levels of anti-oxidants can greatly extend lifespan and maintain cognitive function. However, for humans, achieving these benefits probably requires more antioxidants that we get from food sources such as berries.


Despite the increased knowledge of how the brain ages, many people still suffer from the disease most associated with aging – Alzheimer’s. Recently scientists have made groundbreaking discoveries regarding the disease’s causes and preventions but there is still much to do.  Two websites give useful information on this.

The Alzheimer’s Association 
The website of the largest national voluntary health organization committed to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and helping those affected by the disease. Has information for people with Alzheimer’s, caregivers, researchers, and the media, as well as contact information for local chapters.

The Alzheimer Research Forum 
A site oriented towards Alzheimer’s researchers, but with a good section for the general public about research advances, treatments and clinical trials, Alzheimer’s associations, clinical research centers, support groups, and advocacy.

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