As an older adult, you may be monitoring how your body is changing, and probably no area of concern is higher than your brain. Maybe you have noticed you seem to forget where you placed your car keys more frequently, or you find yourself entering a room to do something, but can’t remember what it was you were going to do. Let’s take a look at what happens to your brain as you age, and what you can do to adapt.

How Does the Brain Change?

As we age, certain parts of our brains shrink, especially those involved in learning and other complex mental activities. Communication between neurons (nerve cells) may not be as effective in certain areas of the brain. And the formation of new neurons also declines with age.

As neurons shrink, they retract their dendrites—the finger-like cells present on the end of neurons that increase the surface area available for receiving incoming information. The number of connections between brain cells (called synapses) also drops, which can affect learning and memory.

The outer-ridged surface of the brain thins due to a loss of these synaptic connections, which may contribute to slower cognitive processing.

Nerve fibers in the deep parts of the brain (called white matter) that carry signals between brain cells may shrink, reducing cognitive function.

A reduction in blood flow is common with aging and causes a slow deterioration of brain tissues and cognitive function.

Inflammation in the brain can damage regions involved in thinking, memory, movement, personality, behavior and language.

The Natural Aging Process

The natural aging processes of your brain as you age provides challenges recalling names, the ability to take in new information, and using numbers. This is why remembering a password, a phone number, or where you parked your car becomes more difficult. However, procedural memories like how to ride a bike, tie your shoe, fuel your car, or how to swim remain intact. Procedural memory enables you to do something that you do not have to consciously think about nearly as hard in order to perform the activity or task.

As another possibility for your brain as you age, you may find it more difficult to focus your attention on conversations when there is a large amount of background noise, because your ability to tune out distractions diminishes. You may also find that it is more challenging for you to hold a conversation while driving.

An aging brain generates fewer chemical messengers like dopamine, which is the central chemical in your brain. Some of the processes that dopamine regulates include:

  • How you perceive and experience pleasure
  • How you process pain
  • The flow of information in the brain
  • Wakefulness during the day
  • Creativity

Of course, the biggest fear is the risk of dementia, which is not part of the brain’s natural aging process. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in nine people age 65 and older is living with Alzheimer’s disease or a different form of dementia.

Think Positively about Your Thinking

Each of us experiences aging differently. Unique factors such as genetics, living healthy lifestyles, and pursuing activities and interests to stimulate the brain can have positive effects on your brain.

Even though 40 percent of us will experience some degree of memory loss after age 65, most people will continue to have strong memories as they age, and will retain skills and knowledge learned over a lifetime.

There are different levels of memory loss with no underlying medical condition that won’t disrupt your daily routine, affect your ability to complete tasks, or learn new things. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following as age-related memory changes that do not indicate dementia is necessarily present:

  • Occasionally misplacing car keys
  • Struggling to find a word but remembering it later
  • Forgetting the name of an acquaintance
  • Forgetting the most recent events

Normally, knowledge and experiences built over time, old memories, and language will stay intact.

So the next time you walk through a door into a room and forget why you are there, understand that this is not cause for alarm. The term for it is the Doorway Effect, which happens because your brain tends to memorize a lot of things at once, and then forgets the order in which you should do the tasks. Don’t worry too much about this. Just walk out of the room and back to your previous location as a way to recall it.

For more information on senior health, visit Bethesda’s Health & Wellness blog.