What happens to our brains as we age?

As we leave the glory decades of the 20’s and 30’s and move into middle age we are told to look after our bones, our weight, our skin, our teeth and yet we often don’t think to look after the most important organ in our bodies – our brains! In honour of Brain Aware Week happening in March we spoke to the team at Stronger Brains about what happens to our brains as we age. Apparently, prevention is better than cure when it comes to our brains so keep reading to find out some tips and training techniques for keeping your brain alert and quick!

What happens to our brains as we age?

During childhood, every day brings new experiences and concentrated learnings through our active process in school and in the environment in which we live. Being engaged in employment brings new learnings and challenges in which we acquire new skills and abilities. However, our brains start to decline from around our third decade. Also, in middle age, we rarely engage in tasks that require the same amount of concentrated active processes we did when we were younger. We use our well developed learnt skills to engage in jobs we already know how to do. This lack of intensive learning as we age can lead to our brains being sluggish, noisy and inattentive.

As we age, our processing speed slows down so that the accuracy, strength and sharpness of the perception of the world around us is confusing. Over time, the brain begins to miss many details, making it more difficult to react to and remember what we saw and heard.

Our brain has difficulty cancelling out all the noise it receives from the world around us as well as the from the worrisome or distracted thoughts it produces itself. This makes concentration difficult. This can lead us to become more forgetful and less inclined to seek new experiences as our lives become full of frustration and anxiety.

As we get older, we need to learn something new with intense concentration and active involvement to lay down new memories and stimulate the brain to create new pathways.

What are some exercises we can do weekly to keep them healthy?

  1. Physical Exercise
  2. Eat Healthily
  3. Get good quality sleep
  4. Engage in challenging and stimulating non-computer games such as:
    • Juggling
    • Table Tennis
    • Dancing
    • Yoga
    • Jigsaw
    • Tracing pictures
    • Mazes
    • Dots to Dots
  5. Play a musical instrument
  6. Brain Training exercises such as Brainhq
  7. Learn a new language

What age should we start?

Any age. No age limit.

Does it really make a difference? What evidence is there to support this?

All brain training programs are not equal. Some Brain Training Programs make claims that are not supported with scientific evidence. To determine if a Brain Training Program is effective, there should be independent well-designed randomized controlled trial/s demonstrating is efficacy.

Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, a large multi-site randomized controlled trial organized and funded by the National Institutes of Health in the USA, showed that one particular type of brain exercise from BrainHQ —called “speed training” in the study—cut the long-term risk of dementia by 33% to 48% in the trial group.

An independent research group at the Centre of Excellence for Alzhiemer’s Disease Research & Care at Edith Cowan University in Australia, led by Dr Tejal Shah and Dr Ralph Martins, have just published a review of 18 commercial brain training programs. They found that 11 of 18 brain training programs had no published evidence of effectiveness. The review evaluated the types of studies conducted by the 7 brain training programs and categorized them according to the quality of the study. The best program being BrainHQ from Posit Science.

What if someone is already starting to become forgetful and not as sharp as they used to be? Is there a way to stop the degeneration?

Prevention is the key. Brain Training programs can assist in improving processing speed, memory, attention, vision, hearing, mood and driving throughout our lifespan. However, every brain is unique and training must be targeted at the individual brain’s weaknesses. We must not fall into the trap of believing some claims made by some brain training programs that they can cure diseases such as dementia with their programs. When training is targeted at a cognitive weakness and participants are actively engaged in the evidence-based program with fidelity, then degeneration can be slow-downed.

Dr. Michael Merzenich is a world expert on neuroplasticity, and director of Stronger Brains. More information on these exercises and Brain HQ can be found here and you can listen to him talk about neuroplasticity here.