Mental Health

Best Ways To Prevent Brain Shrinkage As You Age

As you age, your brain starts to shrink, slowing your processing and cognitive functions, and that is bad news if you want to stay mentally (and physically) active later in life.
What Is Brain Shrinkage?

Brain shrinkage, also called cerebral atrophy, stems from loss of brain cells (neurons) and the connections between them. It typically starts at ages 60 to 70 years old, and is either generalized (i.e. all of the brain has shrunk) or is focal (i.e. affecting only a limited part of the brain, resulting in decreased function that said part controls). Brain shrinkage can also affect the cerebrum, leading to impaired conscious thought and voluntary processes. 

Caused by dementia, seizures and a group of language disorders called aphasia, brain shrinkage is associated with many diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke and cerebral palsy. 

Study Says Physical, Leisurely Activities May Prevent Brain Shrinkage

The good news is that, even at an early age, you can stop or slow down brain shrinkage and its associated diseases by doing these surprisingly simple solutions: walking, gardening, dancing, swimming and other physical/leisurely activities, and a new study has proven this in greater detail. 

To examine the association between physical activities and brain aging, researchers from Columbia University assessed the activity levels of older adults before analyzing their brain quality via MRI scans, and found that those who are more active had larger brain volumes compared to inactive ones, indicating that physical activities may help slow down brain volume loss.

More than 1,500 older adults with an average age of 74 had their activity levels measured according to the calories burned through activities that they engaged in over a span of two weeks and had the said activities' frequency, duration and intensity measured as well. These activities were split into three categories: vigorous activities, which include aerobic dancing and jogging; moderate activities, which include cycling and swimming; and light activities, which include walking, dancing and gardening. The participants were then split into three groups and judged by people who are least to most active. 

The MRI scans of the participants in the study measured volumes of the following: gray matter, which affects speech, thinking and memory; white matter, which coordinates communication between different brain regions; and white matter hyperintensity, a sign of white matter damage, which is found in a 2019 study to be common among older adults. They all revealed that high activity levels resulted in a 1.4 percent increase in total brain volume, equivalent to slowing down brain aging by four years, the report said. 

According to Dr. Richard Marottoli, medical director of the Dorothy Adler Geriatric Assessment Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital, brain volume, along with cognitive test performance and daily function, is one marker of success. 

The study does have one limitation: physical activity information relied mainly on the participants' ability to remember the frequency and duration of their activities. The study itself found an association, but not a causal relationship. 

"However, there's no apparent downside to incorporating these activities in our daily routine until we have more definitive evidence, and there may be other benefits as well, such as cardiovascular health," he said. "[The findings]

add to an expanding body of evidence that a variety of things under our control may have beneficial effects on cognition." 

"If larger brain volume is a result of activity, it could have generated from biological processes including growth of nervous tissue, anti-inflammatory benefits of exercise and strengthening of synaptic plasticity, which contributes to learning and memory," Dr. Yian Gu, 
study author and assistant neurological sciences professor at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said.

brain As we age, our brains sag just like our skin. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Andrew Winning