I know I am not alone when I tell you that sometimes I find myself standing in the basement trying to recall what I came done there to get. Other times I have gone to get something in a room, done several other things and forgotten to retrieve whatever it was I had planned on getting. Most people over 40 will tell you of similar experiences. Many of us have wondered at that point if we are developing dementia. Generally, the answer is no. These behaviors are a normal part of aging.
An article by R. Peters in the Postgrad Medical Journal points out that aging causes changes to the brain size, vasculature, and cognition. The brain shrinks with increasing age and there are changes at all levels from molecules to morphology. Incidence of stroke, white matter lesions, and dementia also rise with age, as does level of memory impairment and there are changes in levels of neurotransmitters and hormones.
A child’s brain has twice as many synapses as an adult’s brain. In a process called pruning, the neural connections that are used and reinforced most often—like those used for language—are strengthened, while the ones that are not utilized as much fizzle and die.
In our mid 20’s the regions in the frontal lobe that are responsible for judgment, planning, weighing risks and decision-making finally finish developing. A twenty-something’s brain has reached its peak in terms of performance.
An interesting blog on the Canyon Ranch website notes that from your mid 40s to late 50s, your reasoning skills slow down a bit. In a group of people who were first tested on various mental abilities when they were 45–49 years old, reasoning skills declined by 3.6 percent over 10 years, according to research in the British Medical Journal. The middle-age participants also experienced fading sharpness in memory and verbal fluency—the ability to say words quickly in a specific category. On the upside, other measures of cognition—such as moral decision-making, regulating emotions and reading social situations—have been shown to improve beginning with middle age. Experts suspect that simply living life and gaining experience deserves some of the credit. (Bonus fact: Starting at around age 40, people tend to remember positive images more than negative ones—a trend that continues until at least age 80.)
We do know that protective factors that reduce cardiovascular risk, namely regular exercise, a healthy diet, and low to moderate alcohol intake, seem to aid the aging brain as does increased cognitive effort in the form of education or occupational attainment. A healthy life both physically and mentally may be the best defense against the changes of an aging brain.
Just as working out at the gym strengthens your muscles, keeping your mind engaged seems to increase the brain’s vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. Here are a few tips to help you maintain your best cognitive functioning as you age:
- Play an instrument: Whether you pull out your old trumpet from high school or begin playing something new, the regions of your brain responsible for motor, auditory and visual-spatial skills are utilized and strengthened every time you play.
- Learn another language: Or go back and review a language you have studied in the past. This can stimulate several areas of your brain that are responsible for memory, reasoning and thought. I never learned Italian but took a few semesters of continuing education in Italian at our high school before we travelled to Italy. I do speak reasonable French. But, to really challenge myself, I have begun playing Words with Friends in French. It has been a lot of fun and definitely a cognitive challenge.
- Play Brain Games: Sudoku, crossword puzzles word searches and other such games can help generate new brain cells and fortify existing neural connections involved in reasoning, memory and the ability to process, store and retrieve information more quickly and efficiently.
- Read a book: This engages the parts of your brain responsible for vision, language and associative learning.
- Dance: All exercise increases blood flow to the brain. But Dance activates areas in the brain that control motor skills, balance, coordination and spatial awareness. And besides…dancing is so much fun!
- Write: While some of you may have a book inside of you that needs to come out, for others just journaling our thoughts provides cognitive stimulation. Think about writing down information that you wish you might have received from a parent or grandparent but never did.
- Travel: Planning and taking trips to new places is great for many people. Learning about where you are going and what you are going to do and see clearly stimulates the brain.
- Practice mindfulness: Whatever you do, take time to really enjoy it. By focusing on what you are actually doing and enjoying it, you can decrease your stress levels and enjoy life in general.