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Brain Shrinkage
Brain shrinkage or decrease in brain volume begins when people reach their 30s or 40s and accelerates as they become older. This is a physiological process that is associated with age but is affected by environmental factors as well.[1] Different areas of the brain shrink at different rates. As the total brain volume decreases, the number of nerve fibers that carry information from the brain to the body and vice versa and synapses (connections) between the brain cells also decreases. This leads to many age-related cognitive changes, such as:
  • Impaired memory
  • Communication problems
  • Difficulty in learning new information
  • Slower brain function

What are the causes of brain shrinkage?

As mentioned earlier, advancing age is one of the foremost causes of brain shrinkage. Some other factors that contribute to a decrease in total brain volume are:
  • Increased intake of sugar
A high-sugar diet particularly affects the hippocampus – the memory center of the brain[2]. An increase in blood glucose levels leads to greater production of the stress hormone cortisol; this affects normal brain cell function. Moreover, sugary foods also increase inflammation of the brain and reduce the production of new brain cells, leading to memory problems.
  • Deficiency of essential fats
60% of the brain is made of fats. Essential fats, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are those that the body cannot produce itself and have to be consumed with food. Reduced DHA and omega-3 levels are associated with decreased brain volume and cognitive function.
  • Alcoholism
Brain volume is inversely related to the amount of alcohol consumed. Consuming large amounts of alcohol for long periods leads to a decrease in brain volume and associated cognitive decline.
  • Neurological diseases
Certain neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s[3] and Parkinson’s can make the brain smaller in size. These diseases are typically progressive which means that cognitive function worsens with time.

How can you slow down brain shrinkage?

While age-related changes in the brain are inevitable, certain lifestyle modifications can help slow down cognitive decline and improve brain health. Some ways in which reduction in brain volume can be prevented are:
  • Eating a healthy diet
A healthy diet is strongly correlated with improved brain health. The B vitamins, especially vitamin B-12, are particularly important for normal brain function. Reduced intake of vitamin B-12 results in increased levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the body which leads to decreased blood volume.[4] Some good sources of B vitamins are black beans, hummus, tofu, and multivitamin supplements.
  • Staying physically active
Exercise reduces stress levels and improves blood flow to the brain. This is associated with improved memory and cognitive function.
  • Staying mentally active
Taking up hobbies that keep your brain sharp as you age can slow down brain shrinkage. Some activities to consider are reading, learning to play an instrument, and enrolling in classes.
  • Quitting smoking and alcohol
Smoking and alcohol overuse both accelerate cognitive decline. Quitting smoking and avoiding alcohol can significantly improve your brain health.
  • Improving your heart health
A healthy heart provides adequate blood supply to the brain. Consider eating heart-healthy foods such as fish and fresh fruit. If you suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, or diabetes, seek prompt medical treatment.

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Citations

  1. Peters R. (2006). Ageing and the brain. Postgraduate medical journal82(964), 84–88. https://doi.org/10.1136/pgmj.2005.036665
  2. Mortby, M. E., Janke, A. L., Anstey, K. J., Sachdev, P. S., & Cherbuin, N. (2013). High “normal” blood glucose is associated with decreased brain volume and cognitive performance in the 60s: the PATH through life study. PloS one8(9), e73697. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073697
  3. Raji, C. A., Lopez, O. L., Kuller, L. H., Carmichael, O. T., & Becker, J. T. (2009). Age, Alzheimer disease, and brain structure. Neurology73(22), 1899–1905. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181c3f293
  4. Tangney, C. C., Aggarwal, N. T., Li, H., Wilson, R. S., Decarli, C., Evans, D. A., & Morris, M. C. (2011). Vitamin B12, cognition, and brain MRI measures: a cross-sectional examination. Neurology77(13), 1276–1282. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182315a33

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