Your brain starts to shrink as early as your 30s. Even if you seem perfectly healthy, you may be losing as much as 0.4% of your brain or about several million brain cells every year. The rate at which your brain gets smaller increases with age and is a major factor in early mental decline.
Brain shrinkage doesn’t happen to all areas of the brain at once. Some areas shrink more and faster than others, and brain shrinkage is likely to get more severe as you get older.
Brains also shrink from the inside out, resulting in enlargement of the fluid-filled ventricles, or hollow spaces on the interior of the brain.
As your brain changes and shrinks, you may feel like it's affecting your mental function. Even healthy adults may experience: memory problems, challenges with communication, trouble recalling words or vocabulary, difficulty learning something new, increased inflammation with injury or disease, slowdowns caused by decreased communication between nerve cells in the brain, decreased blood flow in the brain.
Like so many of the symptoms of ageing, brain shrinkage was long thought to be simply an inevitable consequence of growing older. Even though brain shrinkage is progressive, a growing number of studies are showing that brain shrinkage that can lead to brain diseases like stroke and dementia are by no means inevitable.
A host of conditions - from cardiovascular disease and diabetes to sleep and anxiety disorders to lifestyle choices - have been associated with brain shrinkage. Since many of these are reversible or at least preventable, it’s important to understand their impact on brain shrinkage, cognition, and life span.
Although we don’t often hear about this, there is a strong connection between cardiovascular disease and brain shrinkage. When plaque builds up inside your arteries and restricts blood flow throughout the body, not only does it have negative effect on your heart, its effect on your brain can be equally devastating.
When blood flow to the brain is restricted, your brain receives less oxygen and fewer nutrients, causing it to shrink. Studies show that people with lower levels of blood flow to the brain have smaller brains thinner cortex (the active surface layer of the brain) resulting in poorer mental function.
There is also a strong connection between diabetes and brain shrinkage Diabetes is notorious for causing problems with the peripheral nervous system, leading to conditions such as painful diabetic neuropathy and blindness-inducing diabetic retinopathy. High blood sugar levels cause shrinkage of the brain through inflammation and the degeneration of brain cells.
Diabetics have a smaller hippocampus - the part of the brain involved in learning and forming new memories - and a reduction in whole brain volume, doubling their risk of mild cognitive impairment. And many people with diabetes have brain changes that are hallmarks of both Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. In fact, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are so similar to type 2 diabetes, this brain condition has been relabelled type 3 diabetes.
Like diabetes, obesity is a known cause of brain atrophy. Even in people with normal cognition, higher body mass index (which is used as a measure of obesity) is associated with lower brain volume in obese and overweight people.
Indeed, research has shown that there’s a link between the size of your belly and the size of your brain. People who have a high waist-to-hip ratio have smaller brains compared with people who have a healthy weight.
Obesity and diabetes share many similar mechanisms, including insulin resistance and oxidative stress, both of which are known to contribute to brain shrinkage.
Sleep disruptions and anxiety also contribute to loss of brain volume. Relatively healthy older adults who sleep who get fewer hours sleep have smaller brains than people who sleep for longer. For every hour of reduced sleep duration, they can experience yearly reduction in the size of their brain and decrease in their mental performance. Similar increases in brain shrinkage are associated with decreased quality of sleep as well.
Poor sleep and anxiety, of course, are related, and one study has shown that middle-aged women who have had longstanding psychological distress have double the risk of brain shrinkage in parts of the brain where memories are stored.
Smoking and chronic alcohol consumption have long been recognised as a cause of brain shrinkage. A history of smoking (even if you currently do not smoke) is associated with faster brain shrinkage in multiple brain regions, compared with people who never smoked.
Alcohol consumption changes the size of your brain in a dose-dependant way. While light-to-moderate drinkers actually have larger brains than nondrinkers, heavy drinkers are 80% more likely than nondrinkers to sustain frontal lobe shrinkage, compared with nondrinkers and 32% more likely to have brain shrinkage from inside out.
Even though the array of factors that can cause brain shrinkage can be daunting, there is good news. Since brain shrinkage results from the same basic processes that cause other symptoms of ageing, brain shrinkage can be prevented or at the very least slowed down to arrest mental decline.
To stop your brain from shrinking, you can adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle can keep dementia at bay. Crucially, it is never too late (or too early) to start looking after your brain health – and even small changes could make a big difference. In fact, we should really be taking care of brain health, just as we would our physical health, for our entire life - ideally starting as early as our teenage years.
There are 12 risk factors for poor brain health which, if eliminated from your life, could reduce your dementia risk by 40%. Adopting healthy habits like exercising regularly, stopping smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation and eating brain-healthy foods will reduce your risk of dementia.
Bugs that live in your gut play a crucial role in communication between your gut and brain. And fermented foods and probiotic supplements provide the most beneficial bacteria for your gut and brain health.
A balanced diet is fundamental to brain health. The right foods don’t just fuel your brain cells, they also boost the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain and reduce potentially harmful inflammation.
Sleep is also fundamental to good brain health. Try to get 7-9 hours sleep each night and go to bed and wake at the same time to maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle.
To maintain and improve brain health, try and do regular, organised (or purposeful) exercise AND try to be active in your day-to-day life. And keep your mind active by being curious and learning new things will help you to maintain your mental fitness and protect your brain against mental decline.
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