- The human brain doesn’t slow down with aging until after people reach 60 years old, according to a study that included data from 1.2 million people who participated in an online experiment.
- Researchers suggest a healthy brain maintains much of its effectiveness and efficiency well into older age.
- Experts say mental stimulation, healthy lifestyle, and stress management are crucial to maintaining our brain health.
If you get to middle age feeling like your brain is slowing down, it might just be in your head. Because it’s actually not in your head.
In the study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers say growing less impulsive with age, which starts in our 20s, has traditionally made us believe our brain is slowing down.
Previous studies have suggested similar findings but weren’t exactly looking at the entire picture, according to lead researcher Mischa von Krause, PhD, from Heidelberg University’s Institute of Psychology.
“Our research now shows that this slowing is not due to a reduction in cognitive processing speed,” von Krause told U.S. News and World Report. “Until older adulthood, the speed of information processing in the task we studied barely changes.”
Scientists analyzed data from more than 1.2 million people who participated in an online experiment measuring reaction time to a brain test. Participants were asked to categorize words and images flashing on a screen by hitting the correct key.
But the process of deciding which key was correct didn’t slow until participants reached 60 years old. The research findings suggest that our body and brain aren’t necessarily responsible for whatever mental decline we think starts with adulthood.
“We can explain the slower reactions by the fact that people become more cautious in their decisions with increasing age, i.e., they try to avoid mistakes,” von Krause told the publication. “At the same time, also the motor processes, i.e., the pressing of the response keys in an experiment, slow down with increasing age.”
James Giordano, PhD, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University, told Healthline a healthy brain can remain fully capable for the majority of a person’s life span.
“As matter of fact, as we age, the neural nodes and networks formed throughout our life can actually become more efficient in their ability to link and relate prior and current experience to predictive decisions,” Giordano said.
He said there are two very important adages that apply to the brain’s network capabilities: effectiveness and efficiency.
“First is that ‘nerve cells that fire together, wire together,’ which means that neurological nodes and networks are formed as a consequence of engagement and use,” Giordano told Healthline.
“Second, is that ‘if you don’t use it, you tend to lose it.’ With life experience that comes with aging, we form and fortify certain neurological networks, and while we retain many — such as those involved in the performance of fundamental abilities, tasks, and skills, and basic concepts that are part of the repertoires of our life — other network connectivities weaken with disuse.”
But just because we go through periods of inaction doesn’t mean the brain can’t rally.
“The good news is that a healthy brain retains much of its capacity to reestablish and form node and network connectivity throughout much of the life span, well into old age,” Giordano told Healthline. “It just requires the necessary stimuli to keep these mechanisms and processes actively engaged.”
“This is why lifelong ‘brain health’ is so important,” he said.
Dr. Bradley Katz, a professor and neuro-ophthalmologist at the University of Utah, told Healthline what we think of as good body maintenance helps our brain as well. Katz said slower physical reflexes can cause our body to act more slowly in response to the mental output of our brain.
“Keeping our brains in tip-top shape as we age doesn’t only mean learning new things or doing brain puzzles to keep the brain stimulated. It also means maintaining a healthy diet to support our brain health and our overall physical health, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and controlling cholesterol levels to maintain good blood flow to the brain.”
— Dr. Bradley Katz
Dr. Verna R. Porter is a neurologist and the director of programs for dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and neurocognitive disorders at the Pacific Brain Health Center, Providence Saint John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica, California.
Porter told Healthline there are some basic ways to keep your brain healthy throughout your lifetime:
- Exercise 30 to 45 minutes per day, 4 to 5 days per week. This can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent.
- Stay socially engaged. Maintaining a strong network of family and friends is very important for health.
- Consider the “MIND” diet, which is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
The MIND diet has 15 dietary components, including 10 “brain-healthy” food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and resveratrol, a supplement derived from red wine.
Porter said mental stimulation is vital, as is quality sleep and stress management.
“Chronic or persistent stress can actually lead to nerve cell decline and even death, which may manifest as atrophy (shrinkage in size) of important memory areas in the brain,” Porter told Healthline.
“Nerve cell dysfunction and degeneration in turn increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Engage in relaxation techniques… Studies have shown that regular meditation, prayer, reflection, and religious practice may diminish the damaging effects of stress on the brain,” Porter said.