The human brain shrinks with age in most people: Studies suggest that even in apparently healthy older adults, the brain can lose up to 2 percent of its volume per year. However, not all people experience this gradual brain atrophy, and experts have been studying them to learn why. What they are finding out about the factors associated with maintaining brain volume suggests that all of us can find ways to reduce the toll age takes on our gray cells—and perhaps even reverse it.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The following lifestyle strategies have also been shown to help prevent loss of brain volume with age:
- Get 7-8 hours of good quality sleep at night. Poor sleep is linked with higher levels of atrophy in the brain regions responsible for higher brain functions, including learning and memory
- Eat a healthy Mediterranean-style diet that is low in fat and rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and cold-water fish with omega-3 fatty acids. Substitute healthy fats such as olive and canola oils for trans fats and unsaturated fats (such as coconut oil).
- Avoid obesity by maintaining a moderate caloric intake, and stay physically active.
- Reduce stress, which can lower levels of neurotrophins. Learn relaxation techniques, and set aside time for rest and recreation to keep stress within healthy limits.
- Seek treatment for mood disorders and depression. There is evidence that treatments for depression and anxiety may work in part by stimulating neurogenesis in the brain.
Maintaining Youthful Volume
The production of new brain cells to replace injured and dying neurons is called neurogenesis, and this process is essential to maintaining brain volume and optimal brain function. Neurogenesis involves proteins called neurotrophins—or brain growth factors—which are secreted by surrounding cells to help neurons adapt, survive and make new connections. Loss of brain volume with age is linked to a decrease in brain growth factors.
Researchers have linked a number of activities to maintaining or increasing neurogenesis in older age, including:
Meditation. A review published Jan. 12, 2017 in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease linked regular meditation with significant increases in gray matter volume in the brain.
“Practicing meditation is constantly effortful, and it requires continued practice,” explains neurologist Anand Viswanathan, MD, PhD, Director of the Partners Telestroke Program at MGH and Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. “The positive effect of meditation on brain volume seen in this study is most likely due to the focus and concentration necessary to practice meditation.”
In the review, researchers analyzed 13 studies involving both healthy older adults and older adults with early signs of neurodegeneration linked to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. The participants had undergone scans to measure their brain volume, after which they either meditated or served as controls who did not meditate. A comparison of meditators and non-meditators showed that gray matter volume had increased significantly in those who meditated, but not in non-meditators.
“Just like a muscle, the brain must be used, or over time it will atrophy,” Dr. Viswanathan says. “It’s ‘use it or lose it’—so, in general, the more cognitively active a person is, the less brain atrophy he or she will experience.”
Learning new information. Research studies suggest that keeping your brain occupied with new and challenging tasks may help counteract the decrease in growth factors associated with aging. The brain thrives in a stimulating, complex environment that offers social interaction and opportunities to learn. Exposing yourself to new people and routines, unfamiliar places, and novel ideas keeps your brain cells active and healthy.
“Engaging in learning activities promotes the brain’s ability to grow, even in later life,” Dr. Viswanathan says. “New cognitive tasks, such as taking up a new hobby or learning to play a new sport, stimulates the brain to create new cells and connections, thereby increasing volume.”
Regular exercise. Regular exercise—ideally 30 minutes or more per day, at least five days per week—has been found to slow age-associated declines in brain density in the brain’s gray and white matter in areas key to learning and cognition. Engaging in regular aerobic exercise or strength training boosts levels of important neurotrophins that facilitate brain plasticity—changes in brain processes and structure in response to challenge—so that the brain stays resilient and sharp. Physical activity also helps extend the brain’s capillary network, providing new blood vessels to feed brain cells.
In addition to the age-linked decrease in neurotrophins, brain atrophy has been linked to increased vulnerability to certain conditions common in older age. These conditions—such as cardiovascular disease, strokes, diabetes, brain injury, neurodegenerative disease, psychological problems, and use of certain drugs—require medical management.
“It becomes increasingly important to get regular checkups, and to follow medical advice,” Dr. Viswanathan says.