How to Prevent Your Brain From Shrinking as You Age

Exercise Is Critical, Study Suggests

Healthy brain
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Some amount of brain shrinkage occurs naturally as people age. Other potential causes of brain shrinkage include injury, certain diseases and disorders, infections, and alcohol.

Just as the body ages, so does the brain. However, not all brains age the same. Some of the changes that take place in the brain include decreases in brain mass, shrinkage of white matter, declines in synaptic connections, and changes in neurotransmitter systems. All of these factors may play a role in some of the age-related declines in cognitive abilities that are part of the normal aging process.

Exercise May Protect the Brain

While many of these causes may not be avoidable, there is some evidence that certain lifestyle changes may help protect the brain from age-based declines. Regular exercise is one factor that may help protect the brain from shrinkage as people grow older.

Past research has shown plenty of great reasons to stay physically fit. Aside from being good for your physical health, regular exercise has been shown to be good for your brain. Some research shows that it might even make you smarter. And, as if you needed one more reason to hit the gym, one study has shown that being fit can help minimize the inevitable brain shrinkage that stems from the aging process.

Poor Fitness Linked to Increased Brain Shrinkage

Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine found that people who were in poor physical fitness during their 40s had significantly lower brain volumes by the time they reach age 60.

Experts consider this decrease in brain volume a sign of accelerated aging of the brain.

The researchers explain that while people often don't start to worry about the aging process until they get much older, the results of their study indicate that younger people should consider their brain health early on.

While people often don't start worrying about brain health until they are much older, such studies demonstrate that maintaining your brain's well-being really starts when you are much younger. If you want to have a healthier brain later, you need to start making good choices now.

Researcher discovered these changes in brain volume in a study that involved reviewing exercise data from more than 1,200 adults who were around the age of 40, all of who are 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 in life.

More specifically, they found that individuals with low fitness levels had a much higher rise in diastolic blood pressure after just a few minutes on a treadmill moving at a slow pace. It was these individuals who were more likely to have reduced brain volume at age 60.

The researchers found that people who are not fit experience more spikes in blood pressure and heart rate in response to even low levels of activity compared to people who are physically fit.

Blood Pressure Fluctuations May Damage the Brain

Fluctuations in blood pressure can damage small vessels in the brain that are vulnerable to such changes. Such vascular damage in the brain can then contribute to structural changes and cognitive losses. The researchers were interested in looking at how these dramatic blood pressure changes could contribute to later structural changes in the brain.

The researchers also conducted cognitive tests with participants starting at age 60. They found that those who had lower fitness levels in midlife also did worse on these cognitive tests than did those who had been fit during their 40s.

Why Getting Fit Today Can Protect Your Brain

While the reality is that some brain shrinkage as you age is simply inevitable, the results of this study from Boston University researchers suggests that there are steps you can take to minimize this shrinkage and protect your brain from some of the damaging effects of aging. The results echo previous findings that being physically fit early in life (around age 25) lead to better cognitive performance in middle age.

The researchers also suggest that seeing how these participants fare in the future might also provide important information about the importance of exercise and brain health. Additional follow-ups over the next decade will look at how many of those in the study end up developing dementia as they grow older.

A Word From Verywell

Not all brain shrinkage is preventable, but such research suggests that finding ways to control your blood pressure may help. Regular exercise and eating a balanced diet are two things that may help you control your blood pressure. Research suggests that in addition to exercise, other protective factors such as a healthy diet, challenging leisure activities, socializing with others, avoiding smoking, and limiting alcohol intake can also reduce age-related brain declines.

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