Assisted by the rest of the nervous system, the main control center of our body lies in our brain. It controls our senses, movements, internal functions, our memories and even our thought processes.
“Aging, in and of itself, is a subtle, quiet process,” reported Marie Bernard, MD, the deputy director of the National Institute on Aging; and the whip of this subtle, quiet process called aging is severe indeed!
As we age the complex control center, our brain, also undergoes several transitional changes with each passing year. The process through which our brain changes is both progressive and regressive in nature. At first, the change works towards making the brain more complex.
After attaining a level of optimization in structure and function, it starts regressing. Therefore, this chronological change in the brain is an ongoing process that starts with our birth and ends when our life flickers away.
The age-related changes in our brain are structural, chemical and functional in nature, along with some very strong cognitive changes. Some of the structural changes are:
- The brain shrinks in size and volume, particularly at the cortex.
- Dendritic sprouting may occur with age.
- Dendritic synapses decrease in number.
- Loss of synaptic plasticity.
- White matter lesions appear (easily detected by MRI).
- Myelin sheaths start deteriorating.
A decline in memory function is the most commonly observed cognitive change in the brain associated with progressive age.
These age-related changes in our brain follow a set pattern and can be time lined with progressive age.
One such pattern is given here for a better insight into these chronological changes in brain:
1. The First Two Years (0-2 years)
A human baby is born with a functioning brain and a reflex system. During the first two years of life, the brain goes through a rapid growth process. The neurons grow in size and get connected with each other. As a result, sensations start taking the form of perceptions. By the age of two years, the human brain has changed a lot it is almost about 80% of its adult size!
2. Babyhood to Childhood (3-12 Years)
As the little child proceeds forward, crossing the milestones of age, a marked development is observed in his intelligence, personality, motor and social skills. At birth, each neuron has 2,510 synapses. As the baby ages from two years to three years, this number escalates up to 15,000. This is twice the number as that of the adult brain. Unused connections are fizzled out, and the extensively used ones are reinforced and strengthened by the process of synaptic pruning. So, the structure of the brain keeps changing with the advancement in age.
3. Teens (13-19 years)
By the end of this strategic point on the timeline, the human brain has reached its adult weight and form. Vivacious growth during this age gives the brain galactic potential and strength. The frontal lobes, which are highly activated now, allow the teen to practice a whole lot of different skills.
That’s why the teens are the sizzling, simmering stage of human development. The process of pruning is very active throughout this stage. The cells and connections that are used will survive and strengthened, and the ones that are not used will eventually wither out and die.
If a teen is extensively into a practice like academics or sports, the cells and connections used for these will be reinforced and strengthened; if a teen is a “couch potato” or addicted to video games, these cells and connections will be synchronized.
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4. Early Adulthood (20-24 years)
The frontal lobe, often known as the CEO of the brain, is responsible for planning, judgment, decision making and reasoning. It controls the emotions and is home to our personality. The frontal lobe reaches full development in the early twenties.
5. Late Adulthood (25-35 years)
The process of decline starts creeping in! As we proceed with the process of aging, the brain undergoes several changes that can slow down our thinking process. Changes in brain associated with this age group include:
- The decline in volume.
- Thinning of the cortex.
- The decrease in the neuron count in the brain.
- Myelin sheath around the neurons begins to strip.
Effects of these age-related changes can be seen in difficulty learning new skills, memorizing words, remembering names and numerical information. The process doesn’t happen quickly; it is quiet, slow and steady. But the scary part is that this is just the beginning!
6. Middle Age (40s-50s)
An obvious decline in reasoning skills is observed from the mid-40s to the late 50s. According to the results of research published in the British Medical Journal, “middle-aged participants experienced fading sharpness in memory and verbal fluency.” These cognitive changes in the brain are due to the gene damage process that is the result of normal wear and tear associated with age.
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7. Old Age (60s)
The actual decline in the size of the brain starts showing itself. As the body proceeds forward into the 60s, the brain shrinks in size and loses its efficiency in utilizing the knowledge it has gained over all those years.
8. Great Grand Oldies (70s and 80s)
People in their 70s and above show a faster rate of brain tissue loss and cognitive decline. The rate of reduction in brain volume occurs at a faster pace. A buildup of deposits appears, especially in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories. Alterations in this part of the brain severely affect the memory. In Alzheimer’s patients it is the hippocampus, along with the cerebral cortex, that is highly affected.
There are several age-related changes that affect the brain in its form, structure and function. The size of the brain shrinks with increasing age and there are a multiple of other changes. We can neither reverse the aging process nor can we stop the changes affecting our brain. But we can surely slow down the pace and intensity of these changes by adopting regular exercise, a healthy food, healthy physical and social interactions, and by increased cognitive activities like reading, writing, solving puzzles and crosswords.