Changes That Happen to Your Brain as You Age and How to Prevent Them

You depend on your brain to help you make decisions and solve life’s little problems at home and at work. The brain is fully equipped to do that with almost 15 billion brain cells that are constantly carrying messages in the form of electrical signals.

As with other areas of your body, brains age too. In fact, brain function starts to decline as early as your twenties and thirties. That’s why it’s important to take steps to keep it healthy and “well fed.” Here are the four most common changes that happen to your brain as you age and what you can do about them.

Your brain becomes smaller
Your brain shrinks with age. Whether or not this shrinkage directly affects your ability to think and remember is still debatable. On the other hand, people who have Alzheimer’s disease have a loss of brain volume, and this is used as a marker for progression of their disease.

What you can do about it:
Add more vitamin B12 to your diet. Research has linked low levels of vitamin B12 with brain atrophy and loss of brain volume. In a study carried out at Oxford University, researchers found that participants with mild age-related memory changes lost less brain volume over a 2 year period when they took a B vitamin supplement compared to those who took a placebo. This was confirmed by MRI.

Good sources of B12 include meat, dairy products and fortified cereals. If you eat a vegetarian diet, have your doctor check your B12 level to make sure you’re not deficient. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products and products fortified with it.

Omega-3 fatty acids are other allies in the battle against brain shrinkage and aging. Research shows that people who get more omega-3s in their diet by eating more fatty fish have a greater volume of gray matter in their brain. These “good fats” also help to keep inflammation in check. That bodes well for brain health.

Your brain “rusts”
Like the rest of your body, brain cells are damaged by free radicals formed by chemical reactions that expose them to oxygen. Brain tissue is so metabolically active that damage occurs here at a faster rate than other areas of the body. This isn’t surprising. It takes a lot of energy to keep such a complex organ running. In addition, the brain is an organ that’s 60% fat. Fat is especially vulnerable to damage from free radicals. Who wants a rusty brain?

What you can do about it:
Eat an antioxidant-rich diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables. While you’re at it, add some blueberries and walnuts to your oats in the morning. Blueberries win extra points for being a brain food because they’re such a good source of antioxidants that protect brain cells from the effects of free radical damage and inflammation. In one study, old rats that ate a diet supplemented with 2% blueberry extract reversed some of their age-related cognitive changes.

Walnuts are another brain anti-aging food. In another study, old rats that ate the human equivalent of an ounce of walnuts each day showed improved motor and cognitive function.

Blood flow decreases
Your brain needs blood, glucose and oxygen to survive, but with age the density of small blood vessels called capillaries that supply the brain with blood decrease. That means your blood gets less oxygen. In addition, some people develop narrowing and blocking of the blood vessels leading to the brain, which further reduce brain blood flow.

What you can do about it:
Lace up your exercise shoes, and start moving. Aerobic exercise is the best way to build new blood vessels and increase blood flow to the brain. Recent research also shows that aerobic exercise boosts the number of mitochondria inside brain cells. Mitochondria are the powerhouse of cells that supply the energy cells need to operate. Exercise builds a brain that’s more resistant to ageing. Not to mention the good things it does for the rest of your body.

Your brain cells are less able to repair themselves
Young brains produce adequate amounts of a chemical called nerve growth factor to repair damaged nerve cells. With age, your brain produces less nerve growth factor and damaged nerve cells don’t get repaired like they did when you were younger.

What you can do about it:
Regular aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to boost the amount of nerve growth factor your brain produces. Make time for a brisk walk or run at least 3 days a week to help boost your brain’s power to repair itself. Another way to help your brain repair itself is to provide it with the building blocks it needs like omega-3 fats. Enjoy a piece of fresh salmon to supply your brain with reinforcement.

The bottom line
To keep your brain healthy and hang onto your “mental edge,” eat a diet rich in natural antioxidants like those in fruits and vegetables. Don’t forget to get your omega-3s. Fatty fish and fish oil supplements are the best sources. Then make time for regular aerobic exercise too. It’s as important for your brain as it is for your body.

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