Article at a Glance
- Anxiety, irritability, depression, insomnia, fatigue, memory changes, and low libido can be signs of the effects of aging on the brain.
- The brain goes through both physical and neurotransmitter-related changes with time that could explain changes in mood and/or cognition.
- Evidence-backed methods for improved cognition can help mitigate the effect of time on your brain.
Do you feel like your memory isn’t as sharp, you’re depressed more often, your energy levels have dipped, and you’re just not feeling like yourself? Some of the brain-related changes that come with age may be to blame.
In this article, we’ll unveil some of the notable mental changes a 50-year-old man may experience and some research-backed ways that exist to attenuate mental aging and its effects.
The Brain’s Structure and Function
The brain is made up of cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with each other via neurotransmitters to convey signals that ultimately lead to a response.
How quickly a signal is transmitted from one neuron to the next depends on whether a neuron has a myelin sheath, which makes the signal travel a lot faster. The neurons that have a myelin sheath collectively are referred to as white matter, while those that don’t are called gray matter.
Regions of neurons in the brain are divided into lobes, each of which is responsible for certain functions. For example, the frontal lobes of the brain control skills like memory, language, attention, and motion [R].
The Brain Shrinks
The volume of the brain declines by about 0.2% annually after the age of 35 and reaches 0.5% annual loss after the age of 60 [R]. This is partially due to the progressive death or shrinkage of neurons in the gray matter. White matter is also affected by aging as the myelin sheaths start to deteriorate [R].
Research shows that there are simple ways to reduce age-associated volume loss. Omega-3 fatty acids are effective at improving brain repair and enhancing neurogenesis (the production of more neurons) [R].
Attention is the ability to focus on one specific signal. With age, we experience a decline in the ability to be selectively attentive (to focus on specific information while ignoring other information in the environment) [R]. This kind of attention is important in situations like having a conversation with someone in a noisy place. Divided attention, or the ability to simultaneously focus on multiple tasks, also declines with age [R].
Attention can be enhanced using cognitive training games such as those found in Lumosity. Researchers found that playing brain games for 10-30 minutes daily for 21 days led to improvement in cognitive skills, including attention [R]. In addition, a French pine-tree bark extract, called pycnogenol, is a supplement that has been shown to improve attention [R].
Memory loss it one of the most feared aspects of aging. Many different parts of the brain are involved in memory, but the most notable is the hippocampus, which is involved in memory formation [R]. Cell loss that occurs in the hippocampus in an age-dependent manner is one of the reasons memory negatively changes[R, R].
Reduced dopamine (a messenger in the brain) levels also contribute to memory decline. Dopamine levels drop at a rate of 10% per decade, starting in early adulthood [R]. Among many other functions, this neurotransmitter is involved in memory production in the hippocampus. When there is less dopamine around, memory formation is negatively affected.
Moreover, increased production of proteins called beta-amyloid is associated with memory loss. High levels of beta-amyloid lead to the creation of a sticky mass in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus, that is tightly linked with memory loss [R,R].
There are many evidence-backed ways to reduce memory decline. One way is through the increase of dopamine. Ways to enhance dopamine include massage therapy and meditation, which were shown to increase dopamine production by 31% and 65%, respectively [R, R]. In fact, meditation was found to also directly enhance memory function [R].
In addition, vitamin D supplements were found to protect the brain’s dopamine-producing neurons [R]. Furthermore, recent studies show that omega-3 fatty acids promote the clearance of beta-amyloid from the brain [R].
Sleep Quality Drops
As we age, impaired sleep becomes increasingly common and is a major contributing factor to fatigue and depression. In older individuals, deep sleep duration decreases, and nighttime awakenings increase, both of which lead to impaired sleep [R].
Symptoms of decreased sleep include not only tiredness during the day, but also depressed mood, poor memory, and impaired concentration [R]. Furthermore, insomnia related to emotional stress becomes more common in middle-aged men. This means during periods of stress, middle-aged men are more sensitive to the sleep disturbances caused by stress hormones, such as cortisol [R].
Long-term disturbances in sleep are associated with a higher risk for many diseases, including type II diabetes, hypertension, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke [R].
Melatonin is commonly used for its documented ability to improve the onset, duration, and quality of sleep [R]. Zinc supplements are also effective in enhancing sleep quality and increasing the duration of sleep [R,R].
Lower Testosterone Negatively Effects the Mind
Testosterone is a hormone that decreases with age at a rate of 1%-2% per year after the ages of 30-40 [R,R]. Testosterone has a strong effect on cognition. Research on middle-aged men shows an association between lower levels of testosterone and poor cognitive performance, memory loss, depression, fatigue, low libido, and insomnia [R, R].
Low testosterone levels can be managed through weight loss, sleep improvement, and stress reduction [R]. In some cases, testosterone replacement therapy can be used to improve testosterone levels [R]. One study shows that testosterone replacement therapy can lead to significant improvements in cognitive functioning [R].
Alternative Ways to Protect Your Mental Health
While the above mentioned evidence-backed therapies are targeted at specific mental aspects, here we elucidate some additional proven ways to gain overall mental improvement.
Diet is crucial when it comes to well-being, and the mind is no exception. The Mediterranean diet is well documented for its health benefits, which include reducing the risk for cognitive impairment [R].
Another relatively recent method called photobiomodulation, or transcranial laser, produces beneficial cognitive effects. It’s a non-invasive treatment (essentially shining a light on the head) that can be applied to healthy individuals to induce positive cognitive results, such as improved reaction times, improved memory, and a positive emotional state [R].
Finally, physical exercise has strong effects on the brain, too. It induces both structural and functional changes, leading to enhanced cognitive functioning. By increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery in the brain, it promotes neuron formation and maintenance of brain volume, providing protection against neurodegeneration[R,R].
While you may start noticing some initial signs of mental decline, your 50’s are not too late to employ some of the above methods to reduce potential future impact.
Check out our list of longevity and health clinics to start harnessing the resources available to slow mental aging.
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