What Happens To Your Brain After You Turn 50

No matter our age, most of us are guilty of saying, “I must be getting old,” when we can’t quite find the words to describe something or an important item on our to-do lists slips our minds. Indeed, our brains do change with age; research suggests that the brain shrinks about 5% per decade starting at age 40.

But as we get into our 50s and 60s, what can we expect to happen to our brains? What little slip-ups can be attributed to normal brain aging, and what can signify something more serious? We spoke with doctors to find out:

Brain Changes To Expect Once You Hit Your 50s

In your 50s, your brain is already shrinking. “The cortex ― outer layer of the brain ― becomes thinner, the myelin sheath surrounding the fibers of neurons may begin to degrade, and receptors don’t fire as quickly,” explained Dr. Dylan Wint, a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic.

That being said, most people are still pretty sharp in their 50s — but they may start to notice some changes in their cognition. “In your 50s, cognitive functions such as on-demand recall of names and numbers, processing speed, rapid task-switching and spatial skills can diminish,” Wint said. “This tends to continue in the decades ahead.”

More noticeably, during this time you might see a subtle decline in what is called episodic memory, or “the mental diary that includes ‘meta-tags,’ such as who was present at a meeting last week and on what day that meeting was held,” Wint said. “On the upside, other facets of cognition, such as moral judgment, wisdom and emotional regulation, usually continue to improve during this period.”

Dr. Dale Bredesen, a neuroscience researcher at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, added that hormonal changes can contribute to cognitive changes as well.

“In our 50s, hormonal changes due to menopause in women, and andropause in men, typically occur,” he said. “Cognitive decline can occur due to a sudden drop in hormones, such as the drop in estradiol associated with menopause. People often find more fat accumulation in the 50s as well, which is associated with cognitive decline.”

As you enter your 60s, Wint said, brain shrinkage becomes more noticeable. “Although you retain your lifetime of accumulated knowledge, your brain becomes less efficient at accessing that knowledge and adding to it,” he explained.

Bredesen noted that issues that are more likely to pop up in your 60s, such as heart disease and chronic inflammation, can further contribute to cognitive decline.

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Your brain shrinks as you get older, but exercise and other healthy habits can keep it as sharp as possible.

Normal Signs Of An Aging Brain — And When To Worry

It’s normal to experience some cognitive decline as we age. But when is forgetfulness a sign of something more serious?

“The most prominent effect of typical aging is probably the slowing of mental processes, particularly coming up with names, switching tasks, changing ingrained habits and incorporating new information,” Wint said. “Our brains usually compensate for these changes, so we can still function robustly and independently.”

Cognitive decline becomes concerning when it starts to interfere with daily functioning. “This is never normal, and is formally called dementia,” Wint said. “However, in between typical cognitive aging and dementia is a zone of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), where cognition is not normal for age — formal testing may be necessary to detect this — but does not interfere with routine daily activities. About 50% of people with MCI will progress to develop dementia over the next three to five years.”

If you are experiencing forgetfulness, trouble with communication, or other symptoms that concern you, Wint suggested that you consider a consultation with a geriatrician or neurologist.

“It doesn’t mean you have Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, but a specialist can help to narrow down the cause and any potential treatments or lifestyle changes that may be helpful,” he said.

How To Keep Your Brain Healthy As You Age

While there’s not a lot that can be done about the natural brain shrinkage that comes with aging, both Wint and Bredesen emphasized that lifestyle can make a huge difference for your brain.

“Exercise has the largest effect on brain health,” Wint said. “Regular, moderate aerobic exercise reduces the risk of cognitive decline. It’s also important to stay connected as we age, as a rich in-person social network provides support, reduces stress, combats depression and enhances intellectual stimulation.”

Since many medical conditions are strongly linked to a decline in brain function, maintaining body health is a huge component of maintaining brain health.

“Keep your blood pressure and weight at healthy levels, take medication as prescribed, minimize salt and sugar, keep active, and stay socially connected and positive,” Wint said. “Sleep quality is very important, too, and you should see a professional if your sleep is inadequate in quantity or quality.”

Bredesen added that brain health should be thought of as a lifelong goal, so if you’re in your 20s or 30s, it’s important to take steps now.

“Try to avoid processed food, avoid street drugs and heavy alcohol use, avoid smoking ― yes, even vaping ― avoid sleep loss and major stress, and keep your gut microbiome and oral microbiome optimal,” he said.

Aging happens whether we like it or not. But as both Wint and Bredesen emphasized, lifestyle can make a huge difference in the rate at which your brain health declines, and whether you develop dementia down the road. So start now — your mind and memory will thank you.

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