How to Keep Your Brain Young

You’ve probably noticed changes in your brain as you’ve aged — like having difficulty remembering where you put the car keys, having trouble recalling people’s names, and not learning as quickly as you used to. Our brains undoubtedly change as we age. Dr. Bob Schafer, neuroscientist and head of research at Lumosity, sat down with the team at Stark to discuss the effects of aging on the brain.

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How Does the Brain Transform as We Age?

Our brains are densely connected early in life — everything is connected, and signals can go everywhere and anywhere. The brain is the most connected during these early times of our lives. Dense connectivity in the brain is undoubtedly positive because we are confident signals will travel from one place to another, but these signals are not as efficient. Signals can essentially travel anywhere in the brain at this point — so they’re much less clear and targeted. So, what does our brain do to make these signals more precise? It begins the process of selectively pruning.

Dr. Schafer says, “When you go through this process of selectively pruning, you’re getting rid of some of those connections as you’re developing as a child or adolescent… By the time you’re a late teen and into your twenties, your brain is getting to its mature state. It doesn’t mean that your brain stops being plastic; it doesn’t mean that your brain can’t do anything new. But at that point, the connectivity of your brain is about what it’s going to be for yourself as an adult. Now, the ability of the brain can change and grow throughout life. Even adults can learn new things, but some of those rapid learning and rapid growth capabilities decline.”

Is It True Our Brains Get Softer as We Age?

Studies show our brain does begin to shrink in volume as we age. If you look at structural MRIs in older adults versus younger adults, you will notice some structural differences. “There are real changes there. I think it’s an open question, though, about how directly those structural changes map onto the functional stuff. You’d be surprised at how often you can take two older adults of the same age, look at their structural MRIs, and if each of them takes cognitive assessments to have functional measures — they’re not going to line up in many cases,” shares Dr. Schafer.

He continues, “so, you might have someone who looks like their brain is shrunken and really not looking great on the MRI, but they are performing just fine on the assessments and vice versa. So plenty of things happen to the brain’s structure as we age, but it’s not the case that every single structural change immediately leads to functional change.”

The Brain Can Do Amazing Things, Even as We Age

Dr. Schafer wants to emphasize that the brain can do amazing things as we age — even if it’s not actually creating new neurons! You don’t necessarily need to have neurogenesis occur to learn new things. Your brain can change the weight of a connection between different areas. That’s what you do every time you learn something new — change the importance of the connections and circuits you’re using. Your brain can change in powerful ways through learning, changing, and growing.

If you’d like to keep your brain as healthy as possible as you age, Dr. Schafer emphasizes the importance of keeping yourself in enriched environments. You should regularly get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, exercise frequently, and maintain mental stimulation.