Misconceptions About the Brain and Aging

  There are prominent misconceptions about the brain and aging. One is that you cannot change your brain, which is often caught in the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This expression is not a truism. It is, to coin a term, a falsism. Perhaps you cannot teach an unwilling dog new tricks, but if the dog is willing, the brain will support new learning. The brain retains its plasticity well into old age. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we change our thinking there are corresponding changes in the relevant brain systems.

It is true that we loose brain cells every day. But what most people do not realize is that when we are born is when the number of brain cells we have is the greatest. The paradox is that as we move from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the brains performance improves but does so with fewer neurons.[1] Although the number of neurons decreases, the number of connections between the neurons increases. And even though neurons do die, the brain continues to make new brain cells into the golden years of 70 and beyond. Although some nerve connections might be lost, the brain reallocates functions to compensate for these losses. It is also the case that it can be beneficial to lose nerve connections. This is called pruning. When we use our brains we can grow new brain cells, create new connections, and prevent useful connections from withering.

 Perhaps the worse myth is that memory decline is inevitable as we age. If we remain physically healthy, maintain social connections, manage stress, maintain or develop a positive attitude towards ourselves and our world, and engage in intellectually stimulating mental activity, we can maintain good brain and memory functioning throughout our lives. This blog provides techniques and ideas for stimulating mental activity.

Now it is true that things happen to the brain that at first sound bad. For example, the outer surface of the cortex thins. However, this process starts when we are about 20 years old. Studies have also linked aging with decreases in the brain’s white matter. This could affect the speed of our mental processes. As the brain ages, chemical messengers decrease, which can also affect processing. Here it is important to remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare. The greater storehouse of knowledge that has been built up due to the increased opportunity for learning that aging affords can more than compensate for losses in speed of processing.

 Some people, beginning in their 60’s or 70’s, experience a loss in overall brain mass. Important areas such as the frontal lobe and the hippocampus, which transfers information from Short Term Memory (STM) to Long Term Memory (LTM), can be affected. Again, there are compensatory mechanisms that can be found in the brain itself, in the storehouse of knowledge and, it is hoped, wisdom that has accumulated as a function of age, as well as some of the techniques and methods that are offered in past and future blogs.

Moreover, not all people experience in overall brain mass. Recent research2 concludes that healthy older brains are not significantly smaller than younger brains contrary to earlier findings. Researchers believe that brain volume loss observed in past studies is likely related to pathological changes in the brain that underlie significant cognitive decline instead of aging itself. As long as people keep healthy memories, the gray matter of areas supporting cognition might not shrink as much as the current opinion holds.


[1] Restak, R.  (2009).  Think Smart:  A neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance.  New York:  Riverside Books, p. 9.

2Burgmans, S., van Boxtel, M.P.J., Vuurman, E.F.P.M., Smeets, F., & Gronenschild, E.H.B.M. (2009). The Prevalence of Cortical Gray Matter Atrophy May Be Overestimated In the Healthy Aging Brain., Neuropsychology, 29, 541-550



© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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