The conventional belief has been that as we get older the size of the brain shrinks or atrophies. This has been debunked to a great degree since a 2009 Dutch study at the University of Maastrich.
The researchers looked at the cognitive ability of two groups of people––average age 69 years. The one group of participants were found to be healthy in their mental capacities while the second group was found to have substantial cognitive decline.
The participants were also given MRI scans measuring seven different parts of the brain.
Behavioral data was studied from 1994 to 2005––with scans taken between 1997 and 1999. The cognitive decline was measured by drops of at least 30 percent on two or more of six core tests. These involved verbal learning and fluency, recall, processing speed, and complex information processing, as a screening tool for dementia.
In contrast to the 35 people who stayed healthy, the 30 people who declined cognitively over eleven years showed a significant deterioration in certain areas of the brain. In short, among the people whose cognition got worse, older participants had smaller brain areas than younger participants. The healthy group did not have a significant loss in brain size.
So what was believe to be shrinkage of the brain due to aging, was actually due to a pathological process occurring in the brain. As long as you keep the brain healthy, researchers believe that the gray matter that supports cognition might not shrink much at all.
So how do you keep the brain healthy? Think of that old phrase, “Use it or lose it.”
If you don’t use your muscles, muscle mass diminishes substantially with age. The same is true for the brain. The following are the key factors for keeping your brain size at its optimum:
- Be physically active
- Challenge yourself with difficult mental tasks
- “Feed” your brain with a well-balanced diet
- Minimize toxins such as alcohol––yes it is a toxin––drugs, tobacco, etc.
- Engage in regular sexual activity––it’s good for your brain
- Calm your mind with relaxation, meditation or yoga
“The Prevalence of Cortical Gray Matter Atrophy May Be Overestimated In the Healthy Aging Brain,” Saartje Burgmans, PhD student, Martin P. J. van Boxtel, PhD, MD, Eric F. P. M. Vuurman, PhD, Floortje Smeets, PhD student, and Ed H. B. M. Gronenschild, PhD, Maastricht University; Harry B. M. Uylings, PhD, Maastricht University and VU University Medical Center Amsterdam; and Jelle Jolles, PhD, Maastricht University; Neuropsychology, Vol. 23, No. 5, 2009