No matter how old we are, most of us are guilty of saying, “I must be old,” when we can’t find the right words to describe something or an important item on our to-do list slips through our minds. It’s true, our brains change as we age; Research shows that the brain shrinks about 5% per decade starting at age 40.
But as we enter our 50s and 60s, what can we expect to happen to our brains? What minor errors can be attributed to normal brain aging, and what signals something more serious? We talked to doctors to find out:
Brain Changes to Expect Once You Reach Your 50s
In your 50s, your brain has shrunk. “The cortex – the outer layer of the brain – becomes thinner, the myelin sheath surrounding neuron fibers may start to break down, and the receptors don’t fire as quickly,” explains Dr. Dylan Wint, neurologist and neuropsychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic. .
That said, most people still have pretty good intelligence in their 50s – but they may start to notice some changes in their cognition. “In your 50s, cognitive functions such as remembering names and numbers on demand, processing speed, rapid task switching, and spatial skills may decline,” says Wint. “This is likely to continue in the coming decades.”
Even more markedly, during this time you may notice a subtle decline in what is called episodic memory, or “a mental diary that includes ‘meta-tags,’ such as who was at last week’s meeting and what day it was held. , said Wint. On the bright side, other aspects of cognition, such as moral judgment, wisdom, and emotional regulation, usually continue to improve during this period.
Dale Bredesen, a neuroscience researcher at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, adds that hormonal changes may also contribute to cognitive changes.
“In your 50s, hormonal changes due to menopause in women, and andropause in men, usually occur,” he said. “Cognitive decline can occur due to a sudden decrease in hormones, such as the decrease in estradiol associated with menopause. People also often find more fat deposition in their 50s, which is associated with cognitive decline.”
As you get into your 60s, Wint says, brain shrinkage becomes more apparent. “Even though you retain a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, your brain becomes less efficient at accessing and adding to that knowledge,” he explains.
Bredesen notes that problems that are more likely to emerge in your 60s, such as heart disease and chronic inflammation, may later contribute to cognitive decline.
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Your brain shrinks as you age, but exercise and other healthy habits can keep it sharp.
Normal Signs of Brain Aging — And When to Worry
Experiencing cognitive decline as we age is normal. But when is forgetfulness a sign of something more serious?
“The most prominent effect of aging in general may be the slowing of mental processes, especially in naming, switching tasks, changing ingrained habits, and incorporating new information,” Wint said. “Our brains usually compensate for these changes, so we can continue to function well and independently.”
Cognitive decline becomes concerning when it begins to interfere with daily functioning. “This is not normal, and is officially called dementia,” Wint said. “However, between typical cognitive aging and dementia there is a zone of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), where cognition is abnormal for age – formal testing may be needed to detect this – but does not interfere with routine daily activities. About 50% of people with MCI will develop dementia in the next three to five years.”
If you experience forgetfulness, difficulty communicating, or other concerning symptoms, Wint recommends that you consider consulting a geriatrician or neurologist.
“This doesn’t mean you have Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, but a specialist can help narrow down the cause and potential medications or lifestyle changes that might help,” he says.
How to Keep Your Brain Healthy as You Age
While there’s not much that can be done to reverse the natural brain shrinkage that comes with aging, both Wint and Bredesen emphasize that lifestyle can make a big difference to your brain.
“Exercise has the biggest impact on brain health,” Wint said. “Moderate and regular aerobic exercise reduces the risk of cognitive decline. It is also important to stay connected as we age, as a rich social network will provide support, reduce stress, combat depression and increase intellectual stimulation.”
Because many medical conditions are closely related to decreased brain function, maintaining a healthy body is an important component in maintaining brain health.
“Keep your blood pressure and weight at healthy levels, take your medications as prescribed, minimize salt and sugar, stay active, and stay connected socially and positively,” says Wint. “Sleep quality is also very important, and you should see a professional if your sleep quality or quantity is inadequate.”
Bredesen adds that brain health should be considered a lifelong goal, so if you’re in your 20s or 30s, it’s important to take steps now.
“Try to avoid processed foods, avoid illegal drugs and large alcohol use, avoid smoking – yes, even vaping – avoid sleep deprivation and high stress, and keep your gut microbiome and mouth microbiome optimal,” he says.
Aging happens whether we like it or not. But as Wint and Bredesen emphasize, lifestyle can make a big difference in the rate of decline in your brain health, and whether you will develop dementia later in life. So start now — your mind and memory will thank you.