We humans are equipped with one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever developed. The Brain. It's a marvelous invention, our brain. It represents about 2% of our body weight, but gobbles up 20% of our oxygen and caloric intake. (Check out this post where I explain two easy steps to take better care of your brain. They are two simple strategies that can make a huge difference in your brain health.) In this post we take a closer look at lifestyle factors that cause your brain to shrink as you age.
First, what is brain shrinkage?
Brain shrinkage, or Cerebral Atrophy, is the loss of neurons, neuronal connections and thinning out of the white matter of the brain. (The white matter is the deeper part of the brain. The gray matter is the covering of the brain.) It is a common feature of many age-related brain diseases. This process of shrinkage leads to loss of memory and mental sharpness. It is also a major risk in premature death.
So why does the brain shrink?
There are four major lifestyle factors that may lead to faster brain shrinkage and cognitive decline:
High Blood Pressure
That's probably not a surprising list. Brain shrinkage has long been believed to be an inevitable part of aging. While that may or may not be the case, the four factors listed above almost certainly increase the rate at which it happens. (Read this study for details about how they increase the rate of shrinkage and cognitive decline.)
You likely know it's wise from a long-term health standpoint to lose weight if you are overweight, stop smoking if necessary, reduce your blood pressure to healthy levels, and avoid diabetes. Brain shrinkage and its associated cognitive decline are more reasons in a long litany of health concerns fueled by these factors.
If you are reading this website it's likely that you already have the basics covered.
Let's look at other factors that increase the rate of shrinkage of the brain.
- Chronic back pain. In a study at Northwestern University, researchers found that back pain sustained for six months or longer is accompanied by abnormal brain chemistry, which may lead to a thinning of the gray matter. The brain may shrink up to 11% in one year of chronic back pain. That's about how much someone without chronic back pain loses in a decade.
- Internet addiction. In a small study published in Scientific American, researchers found that adolescents addicted to the Internet had brain regions that were 10% to 20% smaller than their non-internet addicted peers. We don't know if the brain recovers form this shrinkage, and it likely affects adults more seriously due to the fact that adult brains are not creating new neurons and connections at the same rate as an adolescent's. The problem is becoming prevalent enough to engender its own disorder, aptly named Internet addiction disorder. Yes, it's real.
- Sleep deprivation. Sleep is critical to our overall health. (Have trouble sleeping? Read this article to learn how to sleep better.) It's the time when our body heals, our brain cleans itself out and our mind consolidates memories and moves them from short-term to long-term storage. Researchers have discovered that "brain imaging has linked chronic insomnia to lower gray matter density in areas that regulate the brain's ability to make decisions and to rest".
- Lack of Vitamin B12. People who choose too eat meat-free diets are at greater risk of brain shrinkage due to a lack of Vitamin B12. Found in meat and milk products, B12 is critical to a healthy nervous system, including a robust and healthy brain. You can supplement, but our bodies evolved to assimilate nutrients form food, not pills.
- Heavy marijuana use and alcohol drinking. Both of these activities are linked with an increased rate of brain shrinkage.
Next week, I will take a look at brain-boosting foods as well as some perhaps surprising and definitely fun ways to reduce and maybe even prevent brain shrinkage and make you smarter at the same time!