So what happens when your brain shrinks? If you think a shrinking brain sounds like the plot for a horror movie or a thriller, think again.Your brain is shrinking right now, this very instant. And it will continue to shrink for as long as you live. Does this mean you'll end up with a brain the size of a raisin if you live long enough?
No. It does mean that as you age it may take you longer to process some information, or have more difficulty with some topics than others. The bad news is that it's a normal process that happens to everyone. The good news is that there's something you can do about it.
The incredible shrinking brain: not a movie title, just biology
Throughout childhood, our brains grow at an amazing rate. During our teens and even our twenties they're in a constant state of creating new connections and removing disused ones, and brain size stays fairly steady. Once we pass our mid to late twenties, though, our brains slowly but surely begin to shrink. There are many theories on why this happens, and many different factors that can affect the rate at which our brains lose mass. One thing which has an impact is simply how much you use it.
While science once thought our brains stopped developing once we passed adolescence, we now know this is isn't so. The human brain grows new neurons and creates new pathways well into old age. It also removes unused circuits, so in a way it's rather like a muscle. If you don't use it, you lose it. Giving your brain a mental workout keeps it bigger and stronger. Habit and routine allow it to atrophy. This isn't the only factor that influences the size of your brain, however. There are multiple lifestyle factors that can either bulk your brain up or put it on a starvation diet.
Nobody wants to be a fathead - to keep your brain healthy, start with your body
In case you needed another reason to get in shape, here it is: diabetes, high blood pressure, and being overweight make your brain shrink at a faster rate. A recent study from the University of California, Davis, found that these three conditions, along with smoking, had a huge effect on brain volume. And surprisingly, excess weight carried the most risk.
The brain is made up of grey matter, which is where the actual processing of information goes on, and white matter, which determines how fast messages are sent and received. Those with high blood pressure had more white matter changes, while smokers had more overall shrinkage. Diabetics lost more in the area which is involved with memory. In fact, there was a direct link between the size of the brain's memory center and blood sugar levels. But those who were overweight had the fastest shrinkage rates, and the biggest overall loss of function.
Being a vegan can make you a pinhead.
According to a study in the journal Neurology, eating a meatless diet makes you six times more likely than your meat-eating buddies to have brain shrinkage. Chronic stress also shrinks your brain, as does chronic pain. Lack of sunshine can also play a role, and poor sleep quality has a huge effect. Even your religious affiliation can make your brain shrink faster. But don't freak out. It's not all bad news. There are some simple things you can do to bulk up your brain, and they don't involve lifting weights.
What you can do:
• Really use your brain. It's easy to fall into a routine and spend a lot of time on autopilot. Make an effort to change up your daily routine whenever it gets too cozy. Sleep on the other side of the bed. Take a different route to work. Practice using your left hand instead of your right hand. Just like muscles, the more you use your brain the less chance it has to get weak - and shrink.
• Eat real food, and don't be afraid of healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are strongly linked to brain health, including reduced shrinkage. And while fat has been demonized over the past few decades, it's trans fats - those artificially manipulated lumps of goo like vegetable shortening - that are bad for you, not naturally occurring fats from vegetables and meat.
• Keep some meat in your diet. There are many reasons to not go meatless, and greater brain shrinkage is one of them. Researchers speculate that the increased shrinkage seen in vegetarians and vegans may be due to lack of vitamin B-12, which occurs naturally only in animal products.
• Get some sun. Lack of vitamin D is also linked to excess shrinkage, and no matter what the Dairy Council may tell you, the best way to get vitamin D is to have some daily sun exposure. Your body makes vitamin D itself when your skin is exposed to sunlight, and a short daily exposure is all you need.
• Get enough sleep. It will lower your stress levels too.
• Exercise. You don't have to hit the gym - go for a swim, or try a little yoga in the privacy of your own home. Get out in the garden and tackle the weeds. Exercise has been shown to actually build new cells in the brain's memory center.
• Try prayer/meditation. Studies show that mindfulness prayer or meditation not only reduces your stress levels, it actually builds brain mass in certain areas. It's a win-win situation. And if the very thought of sitting in on spot and doing nothing makes you squirm, relax. Prayer/meditation doesn't have to mean sitting still. Mindfulness is the act of being really, truly present in the current moment. When you practice mindfulness, nearly any everyday routine can become an opportunity for prayer/meditation.
As the population ages, what we thought we knew about aging is changing. A shrinking brain may be "normal," but it's not inevitable.