As medicine has improved, average life expectancy has increased, with both men and women living 65-70 years on average across countries. As life expectancy has increased, diseases related to aging have emerged. One such problem is age-related brain changes that reduce mental performance in older adults. And this factor is essential even for simplest activities, like cooking or playing at Avalon78. Let’s find out what these changes are, why they occur, and how to prevent them.
What They Are and When They Occur
Age-related brain changes are a gradual decline in mental performance due to disturbances in nerve cell structure, intercellular connections, and decreased gray matter volume. Changes occur at all levels, from tissues to molecules, and begin to form before the age of 20-25. In youth, they are imperceptible: they are compensated by the plasticity of the brain and its high ability to self-repair.
Over time, age-related changes are more noticeable: people remember less well, it’s harder for them to concentrate, they learn more slowly and make mistakes in everyday life. But that doesn’t mean you can give up on cognitive function. For example, studies show that people at a mature age perform better on verbal and spatial reasoning tests than younger people.
Age-related changes occur in everyone, regardless of gender or social status. However, education and occupation do have an effect.
The lower the level of education and intellectual load on the brain, the faster comes the emotional and mental degradation.
Age-related changes, in other words brain aging, are as normal a process as graying of hair, reduction of muscle volume, decrease of vision acuity, hearing and skin elasticity. They should not be confused with brain disorders – diseases of the nervous system that lead to decreased intelligence mainly in older people – Alzheimer’s disease, Pick’s disease or dementia with Levi’s corpuscles.
Why the Brain Is Aging
The first cause is oxidative stress. Biochemical processes occur in all cells, resulting in the accumulation of waste products. Normally they are utilized and removed from the cell. But with age some utilization processes are disturbed and the amount of waste products in the cell increases, including the accumulation of free radicals.
These are unstable atoms that damage the cell membrane, cellular organs and DNA. Their accumulation leads to oxidative stress, a process in which the cell and its internal structures are damaged due to excessive oxidation.
It disrupts the structure of DNA inside the cell nucleus and mitochondria, the energy center of the cell, where many structural errors accumulate. This leads to damage, death and malfunctioning of neurons in the brain.
The toxins and combustion products in cigarette smoke increase oxidative stress. That is why smokers suffer age-related changes in the brain more quickly. The same applies to alcohol which increases the risk of cerebral vascular pathologies.
The second reason for the decline in mental performance in old age is changes in synapses. These are the nerve connections that connect neurons to each other. As people age, the density of synaptic slots decreases, and the fewer connections between neurons, the slower the mental performance, such as remembering or learning a new skill. An older person can perform a task just as well as a younger person, but will need more time to think and make decisions.
The third reason is demyelination. Neuronal spines are covered with myelin, which allows the electrical impulse to travel at high speed from cell to cell. Myelin becomes less and less with age, which slows down the speed of nerve impulse transmission.
Together, these causes lead to the following result: with age, the brain decreases in size, the volume of gray and white matter decreases, and nerve impulse transmission is impaired. All this impairs mental abilities.
How the Aging Brain Manifests Itself
In adulthood, the protective mechanisms no longer have time to correct the failures in the nerve cells, so after 30-35 years old, the first signs of age-related changes appear – the amount of working memory, which is responsible for remembering actual actions and events, decreases. For example, a person may forget where he or she left the parked car, buy some products from a shopping list, or what he or she did this morning.
The aging of the brain means that older people have slower cognitive processes. But this slowdown is uncritical – healthy elderly people without nervous and mental illnesses also remember phone numbers, license plates, or the place where they left their door keys, but it takes them longer than younger people to recover events from memory.
As the elderly age, the amount of accumulated knowledge decreases, and events from autobiographical memory begin to disappear. At the same time, procedural memory, which is responsible for storing information on skills, is practically unaffected. For example, if a young man once learned to ride a bicycle or drive a car, at an older age he will not forget how to operate transport, but may forget which road he took to school, the name of his first boss at work, or the name of the capital of Germany. The same applies to muscle memory: skills, such as playing a musical instrument or dancing, are retained for almost the rest of one’s life.
The concentration of attention decreases in the elderly. As they age, it becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate on a task or to focus on a conversation in a noisy place. The ability to divide attention also decreases. If in youth, it’s possible to cook dinner and listen attentively to the radio playing in the background at the same time, in old age, it’s harder to do so – it takes more energy to do several things at the same time.
There are two ways: make lifestyle changes and educate yourself. Studies show that people who are obese and regularly eat sugar and drink sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages age their brains 10 years earlier. To postpone it, lifestyle adjustments – adjusting body weight and reducing daily sugar intake – should be made.
Researchers claim that people’s brains age slower if they:
- Regularly engage in physical activity: running, playing football, swimming, exercising in the gym.
- Constantly load themselves with intellectual activity: reading books, solving puzzles, writing poetry, studying foreign languages.
- Are socially active: go to museums, socialize regularly with friends and relatives, travel.
- Have stress management skills.
- Maintain a healthy diet.
- Sleep at least seven to eight hours a night.
There are many ways to slow down age-related brain changes. The question is to make them engaging. Any activity that affects the sphere of brain activity will be useful: the development of memory, attention, and speech, counting, communication, spatial thinking.
Daily physical activity in the form of aerobic and power exercises for 45 minutes improves mental performance in people over 50 years. At the same time, other studies report that people over 50 who do not exercise have a five-year brain aging rate comparable to a ten-year brain aging rate.
Age-related brain changes are slowed by playing musical instruments. Studies show that playing or learning an instrument increases neuronal activity – this compensates for the physiological aging of nerve tissue. There is no limit to the choice of musical instrument: it can be a violin, a harmonica, a banjo or an electric guitar.
Reading, learning foreign languages, and developing fine motor skills slow down the development of age-related brain changes. For example, people in southern Italy who make clothes and shoes are less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than people in other regions.
The Mediterranean diet is recognized as the most healthy and beneficial for the nervous system and the cardiovascular system. One of the main factors is a diet containing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. We have already talked about them in detail. Also, studies report that people who add kale, spinach, eggs and avocados to their diet have a slower onset of brain aging.