7 Ways Your Brain Changes as You Age (Plus 6 Tips for Help Staying Sharp)

Your brain ages right along with you. Help protect and strengthen it with these simple tips.

Elizabeth Millard
Older African-American man laughing at the dinner table.

Stiff joints, more wrinkles … smaller brain? Yep, it’s all part of the aging process. 

As you transition into your 60s and beyond, your brain goes through shifts in terms of function, structure and even size, says Scott Kaiser, M.D., director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. That can affect both your overall cognition and your health risks, he says. 

But it’s not all bad: “There are definite upsides with regard to brain health that you can look forward to,” he says.

Much like any physical change that comes with aging, says Dr. Kaiser, these shifts may take some adjustment and greater awareness of how they’re affecting you. “Knowing what the changes are and, most importantly, putting good habits into place that promote brain health can help you navigate through these decades more easily,” he adds.

First, let’s dive into what these potential changes are. Then we’ll give you smart strategies to help keep your brain in top form.

Change #1: Brain Volume

As you age, your entire body may shrink in size — and your brain does, too. Shrinkage occurs especially in the frontal cortex and hippocampus, areas that are most associated with higher cognitive functioning, task organization and memory. 

This process starts around age 60 and continues into later decades. While the rate of contraction varies by person, it tends to be faster in men than in women.

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Change #2: Structure

Your brain relies on special links (called synapses) to send messages related to every function in your body. Getting older can reduce the number of these connections, which means signals may not be as abundant or as speedy as they are for younger brains. The result? You may lose a step — mentally and physically. 

Change #3: Brain Chemistry

Aging changes not only the way messages are sent and received in the brain, but also the messages themselves. For example, people over age 60 tend to have fewer chemical messengers in the brain (called neurotransmitters), a 2018 study in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias reveals. 

These messengers help our brains manage everything from our concentration levels to our heartbeat and breathing. They also influence your mood and emotions. As this happens, your risk of anxiety and depression may increase.

Change #4: Short-Term Memory and Verbal Fluency

Age-related shifts to the physical structure of your brain can have immediate impacts on your memory and communication, says Dr. Kaiser. For example, you might have trouble recalling a certain word right away, or forget what you walked into a room to retrieve. 

Multitasking could become more problematic, and you might need more time to learn new things. These are all normal effects of aging on the  brain, Dr. Kaiser says, but if they start to affect your everyday functioning, he suggests getting a cognitive screening.

Change #5: Decision-Making

Although we tend to place a lot of emphasis on the negative effects of aging on the brain, some important beneficial changes take place as well, Dr. Kaiser says. One of the biggest is in moral judgment, which studies have indicated is much stronger in older adults. 

This is the type of decision-making that’s based on compassion and ethics as well as experience. Older adults have a wealth of insight cultivated from decades of interactions, and there’s a reason the phrase “with age comes wisdom” rings so true.

Change #6: Regulating Emotions

Another big plus for an older brain is a stronger ability to navigate through emotional ups and downs. Although conditions related to dementia can affect this ability profoundly, a brain that’s aging in a healthy way will often offer better perspective. 

That’s part of the reason why studies show that older adults are more likely than younger people to feel positive, the American Psychological Association reports. 

Change #7: Reading Social Cues

Many years on earth equals thousands of social interactions — and these strengthen your ability to understand the nuances of social cues, Dr. Kaiser says. Older people are often better at “reading” others, he’s observed. In fact, that’s partly why a decline in reading social cues or detecting sarcasm can be an early indicator of dementia

How to Protect Your Brain Health

Some of these brain changes are inevitable, and as we mentioned, a few are for the better. As for the others, there’s a lot you can do to help keep your brain function going strong — and these strategies are great for the rest of your body, too. 

A key way to help improve brain health, for example, is regular daily physical activity, which helps lower inflammation levels and boost cardiovascular function. It also helps you maintain mobility. In fact, if you do just one thing for better brain health today, it should be to start exercising.

“Your brain is wired to respond positively to exercise,” says Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., an author and researcher who studies brain chemistry. “When you exercise consistently, your brain becomes even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. You also generate new neurons, which helps with everything from memory to multitasking.” 

Beyond exercise, these lifestyle guidelines can help keep your brain sharp:

Get quality sleep. Brain health relies on good sleep, Breuning says. Research suggests that when you’re deep in dreamland, your brain is busy doing maintenance tasks, like improving nerve cell communication and removing toxin buildup.

Eat your vegetables. Also go for berries, beans, nuts, fish and healthy fats like olive oil. These are all part of the MIND diet, a plan developed by university researchers to emphasize foods that impact brain health. It leans heavily on the Mediterranean diet’s main components. 

This type of diet also boosts the other ways to help nurture your brain health, such as controlling your weight, cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.

Don’t smoke, and drink only in moderation. Smoking is especially harmful to your brain health, since it can compromise blood flow. Alcohol creates that telltale buzz by blocking chemical signals between brain cells, and the effect on memory, speech and other functions can be long-term. 

In general, moderate drinking is defined as one serving of alcohol per day for women and two for men. But talk to your doctor about your specific drinking habits, especially if you’re taking prescription medications. 

Protect your gut health. Numerous studies connect the good bacteria in your gut with brain health, says Breuning. A healthy gut “biome”— that is, the microbes in your intestinal tract — has been linked to lower inflammation overall throughout the body. Your digestive system also plays a major role in immunity, emotional health, blood sugar regulation, hormone release and more. 

Fill your plate with foods that contain probiotics and nutrients called polyphenols, like Greek yogurt and olive oil. Fortunately, the other lifestyle habits on this list also promote better gut health, especially loading up on fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly, Breuning says. 

Stay social. Whether you’re connecting with friends and family through phone calls or in person, it’s important to feel supported, Breuning says. Your brain is negatively impacted by isolation or loneliness — and those, in turn, can affect nutrition, sleep and activity levels. 

“Focusing on efforts to improve your overall health, like good eating habits and quality sleep, can go a long way toward helping brain health,” says Dr. Kaiser. “We can all expect some changes in how our brains operate as we age, but the more you can build in consistent, strong habits, the more you can help slow down that process. And you’ll get a better quality of life as you do.”

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