The brain changes as it ages
It’s true that certain aspects of our noggin change—some for the worse—as we age. “As we age, our brains normally shrink in size by about one to two percent every year after the age of 40,” Dr. Tarawneh says. “This occurs due to loss of brain cells, brain cells shrinking in size, and also some loss of the branches that neurons use to communicate with each other, referred to as dendrites.” But, the brain also improves as we age. Recent research has some good news—more than one-third of the neurons in the hippocampus are regularly renewed throughout life, according to a Swedish study. Learn how to recognize the 12 signs your brain is aging faster than you are.
In some ways we get smarter as we age
mimagephotography/Shutterstock Dr. Tarawneh points out that although some mental processes decline as we age, not all do. “Some of our brain functions such as short-term memory for minor details, processing speed, attention, the ability to multi-task, and visuospatial functions show some decline with healthy aging,” she says. “On the other hand, language functions tend to remain well-preserved as we get older.” In fact, research from Harvard and MIT show that arithmetic skills don’t peak until age 50, and vocabulary and “cumulative intelligence” (all the facts and knowledge you’ve acquired) peak even later, into our early 70s. To keep your brain young, start these habits your 80-year-old brain will thank you for doing today.
The brain can adapt
Golubovy/Shutterstock We now know that the way the brain works isn’t fixed, and can “recruit” other areas to compensate for damaged parts when needed. For example, we know that in certain cases, brain injury leads to brilliance. “The brain can adapt to injury such as stroke or head trauma, a process referred to as ‘brain plasticity,'” Dr. Tarawneh says. “The brain can ‘rewire’ itself so that healthy neurons can form new networks, or modify existing networks to compensate for the damaged parts of the brain.” Experiments in people who were born blind show that they use the visual parts of their brain, even though they can’t see. “One of the most important discoveries in the field is that brain activity can stimulate the process [of revising connections between neurons], which is referred to as activity-dependent plasticity,” she says. “Therefore, brain exercises and rehabilitation is a crucial step in recovery from brain injury, as it allows the brain to ‘re-learn’ functions that were lost due to trauma, in a way that is very similar to what is seen in early brain development.” Don’t miss these extraordinary stories of people whose brain injuries unleashed hidden talents.