A: Joanne, thanks so much for your question! As you mentioned, you are not alone in your complaint. Many of us are looking for ways to improve brain power in our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond.
Let’s start this discussion by looking at how amazing our brains are. While they weigh just 3 to 3 ½ pounds, on a daily basis, they account for around 20% of the oxygen consumed and 20% of the energy we burn to fuel the 100 billion neurons needed to communicate with/signal to themselves and the rest of the body as well as general housecleaning duties to keep the brain alive and healthy.
As we age—from about the third week of gestation to death—our brains change more than any other body part. During just the first years of life, our brains form more than a million new connections (i.e., neural pathways) every second. And between pre-school age and first grade, the size of the brain increases four-fold, reaching 90% of the size it will be once we get to adulthood.
While scientists used to believe our neural pathways developed rapidly in the first years of life and peaked in the early 20s only to level off before beginning to decline around middle age, it’s becoming clear this isn’t true.
Our brains change and pathways connect and disconnect throughout our lives. Some areas in the brain (such as the hippocampus, which is associated with memory) shrink, and the protective coating around nerves (called myelin sheath) can wear down, slowing communication speed between nerve cells, which can affect how well we encode new info and retrieve existing data. Yet as we age, the connections between distant areas of the brain get stronger.
Interestingly, the part of the brain needed for executive functions (e.g., working memory, planning, impulse control) known as the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until we are about 35 years old. And it’s in our 40s and 50s that other measures of brain function, like decision making, emotional intelligence, and the ability to accurately read social situations really improve.
In addition, the older brain is better at seeing the relationships between diverse information, helping us to better recognize patterns, to see the big picture, and to understand the grander implications of issues—in other words, “the wisdom of elders.”
Another bonus, starting around 40 or 50, people are also more likely to remember positive events, images, and experiences rather than negative ones. So, while some decline as we get older, other powers improve brain power as they age!
The Science Behind the Aging Brain
Of course, as we get older, our bodies change, and that includes our brains. Memory slips (why you forget what you went into the next room for) are often thought of as part of aging. Yet honestly, you’ve likely experienced those since your 20s but thought they were no big deal.
Still, there are some common symptoms of normal aging, such as:
- Increased difficulty learning new things— while it’s certainly possible (and recommended) to be a lifelong learner, it may just take a little longer for things to stick in the memory banks.
- Reduced ability to multitask— multitasking isn’t actually recommended for anyone as it slows everyone down and makes us less productive and less likely to get stuff done. According to research from the University of Michigan, productivity drops by up to 40% when we try to do two or more things at once. And as we get older, it can become even more difficult.
- Reduced recall— can’t remember a number or name? My personal feeling is that part of that is because we rely on the contact lists in our smartphones, and we use search engines to look up any facts we need in moments. Who needs to remember a phone number, measurement, or even a fact anymore when it’s so easy to pull up? But that’s just my opinion. It has, however, been shown that the ability to remember names and numbers can begin to decline as early as age 20.
Now that you are getting a little older (not that 40-something is old by any means), you may feel a bit more anxious about those “slips.” After all, the media readily shares the link between reduced memory and dementia, especially Alzheimer’s. This only serves to make us more anxious when we forget the name of someone we’ve met (perhaps several times). Plus, other diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which are more common as we age, can also lower cognitive functioning.
However, while memory slips can be a normal part of aging, these disease states are not. Having said that, age-related memory slips are not necessarily a fact of life. For example, research shows that one in five folks in their 70s perform just as well on cognitive tests as their 20-year-old counterparts. “SuperAgers” (those folks who experience significantly less brain shrinkage and are just as sharp as people much younger—even when they’re well past the age of 80) are real, and we may be able to learn a lot from them.
Why Cognitive Function Declines
Understanding what contributes to cognitive decline helps researchers figure out what strategies may help delay or even prevent impairments in brain functioning. Some of the theories thought to contribute include:
- Decreased brain mass— this is especially the case in the frontal lobe and hippocampus (important for learning and memory), and shrinkage may start to occur once we’re over the age of 60.
- Decreased connections— because the outer-ridge surface may see a decline in synaptic connections and the myelin sheath also shrinks, processing may be slowed, reducing cognitive functions.
- Fewer chemical messengers— as we age, we may see a decrease in chemical messengers (called neurotransmitters) like dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which may not only result in decreased cognitive functioning and memory but also increase the risk of depression.
So, to improve brain power and help our brains age more gracefully, we can adjust lifestyle behaviors. For example, excess fat, especially around the waist, has been shown to accelerate brain shrinkage and reduce brain power, and the consumption of soda has been also. Those who don’t exercise can experience a doubling of their aging brain (i.e., comparable to 10 years of aging in just 5 years).
On the other hand, other behaviors have been shown to improve brain power.
How to Improve Brain Power
So, the million-dollar question is, how can you improve brain power? Here are 21 ways:
- Enjoy regular exercise and activity, including both aerobic exercise and resistance training for at least 30 to 45 minutes a day as many days per week as possible.
- Get your grove on and start dancing.
- Consume a nutrient-dense, calorie-appropriate diet that emphasizes whole, minimally processed foods (e.g., cold-water fatty fish, leafy green vegetables, eggs, olive oil, nuts, seeds, legumes, and avocados).
- Add antioxidant-rich foods (i.e., eat plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits).
- Aim to eat cold-water fatty fish (e.g., salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, mackerel) or seafood (e.g., oysters, mussels) high in omega-3 fatty acids at least once a week.
- Learn something new.
- Be a lifelong learner.
- Increase your level of education.
- Make sure you’re in alignment with your work.
- Pursue activities that stimulate the mind.
- Take on challenges (even simple ones like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, working on a crossword, doing sudoku, reading, and writing count).
- Enjoy new experiences.
- Play an instrument.
- Participate in social activities.
- Nurture your relationships.
- Manage your stress levels.
- Ensure you have good sleep hygiene.
- Listen to music.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation (no more than 1 serving per day for women and 2 servings for men under 65) or not at all.
- Stay smoke free.
- Protect your brain from injury by wearing your seatbelt in cars and a helmet when participating in sports.
How to Improve your Brain Power: A Recap
When it comes to improving brain power, many experts suggest that the sooner you start incorporating these changes into your lifestyle, the better. In the end, it may come down to “use it or lose it,” so no matter what your age, education, or occupation, providing your brain with new, stimulating, and challenging information and activities can help keep you sharp for decades to come.