Some amount of brain shrinkage, sometimes referred to as brain atrophy or cerebral atrophy, occurs naturally with age. Just as the body gets older, so does the brain. But not all brains age the same.
Aging-related brain changes may include decreases in brain mass, shrinkage of areas of the brain that contain nerve fibers, loss of connections between neurons, and changes in the neurotransmitter systems that communicate information in the brain and body. All of these can play a role in age-related declines in cognitive abilities.
What Is Brain Atrophy?
Atrophy refers to a loss of cells, and when this atrophy occurs within the brain, it means a loss of both neurons and their connectors, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. This results in shrinkage of all or part of the brain.1
Brain Shrinkage Causes
What causes the brain to shrink or atrophy as we get older? There are a couple of factors to consider.
Low Fitness Levels
Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine found that people with poor physical fitness in their 40s have significantly lower brain volumes by the time they reach age 60.2 Experts consider this decrease in brain volume a sign of accelerated aging of the brain.
The study reviewed exercise data from more than 1,200 adults who were around the age of 40, all of whom were part of the larger Framingham Heart Study. When these participants were given MRI scans 20 years later, those who were less fit in midlife had much lower levels of brain tissue later on.
Other studies echo the findings that being physically fit early in life (around age 25) leads to better cognitive performance in middle age.3
Researchers from Boston University also found that people with low fitness levels had a much higher rise in diastolic blood pressure after just a few minutes on a treadmill, even when moving at a slow pace. It was these people who were more likely to have reduced brain volume at age 60.
Fluctuations in blood pressure can damage small vessels in the brain that are vulnerable to such changes. Vascular damage in the brain can then contribute to structural changes and cognitive losses.
The researchers in this study were interested in looking at how these dramatic blood pressure changes could contribute to future brain structure changes. They found that those who had lower fitness levels in midlife did worse on cognitive tests at age 60 than those who had been fit during their 40s.
Additional Brain Shrinkage Causes
Other non-age-related causes of brain shrinkage include injury, certain diseases and disorders, and infections. Brain shrinkage can also be caused by alcohol use.
How to Prevent Brain Shrinkage With Age
While some causes of brain shrinkage may not be avoidable, there is evidence that certain lifestyle changes may help protect the brain from age-based declines.4
Get Regular Exercise
Regular exercise can help protect the brain from shrinkage as people grow older. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that most people get a minimum of 150 minutes of heart rate-raising activity per week, along with a couple of days of some type of strength training.5 However, any amount of movement can help.
There are plenty of great reasons to get and stay physically fit. Aside from being protective against brain atrophy, regular exercise has been shown to improve cognitive functioning.6 It’s also good for your physical health and provides mental health benefits as well.
Control Your Blood Pressure
Another way to protect against brain shrinkage is to control your blood pressure to reduce your risk of vascular damage. Regular exercise can help with this. It’s also beneficial to take the time to reduce stress, limit the amount of salt in your diet, and strive to maintain a healthy weight.7
If you find that you have trouble controlling your blood pressure on your own, speak with your healthcare provider. They may recommend medications to keep blood pressure at a healthier level for your body and your brain.
Make Other Lifestyle Changes
Research suggests that, in addition to exercise and blood pressure stabilization, there are a few other activities you can do to reduce age-related brain declines, such as:8
- Avoiding or quitting smoking
- Eating a healthy diet
- Engaging in challenging leisure activities
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Socializing with others
A Word From EXPERTS
While people often don’t start worrying about brain health until they are much older, studies such as those mentioned above demonstrate that maintaining the brain’s well-being needs to start when we are much younger. This means making good choices now.
Not all brain shrinkage is preventable, but getting regular exercise and controlling your blood pressure may help. So too can other lifestyle changes, giving you several things you can do today to help protect against age-related brain atrophy tomorrow.
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