The incredible shrinking brain

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Someone recently told me that aging is all about shrinking. It is true, as most of us know, that we lose height as our spinal cords compress with too many years of standing upright. There are those shrinking opportunities that diminish as youngsters take over the asylum.

Perhaps we can deal with all that, but a shrinking brain? Say it isn't so! It is hard enough to keep up with the iPod generation and their fast-paced life-on-demand.

According to Dr. Donna Israel, educator and expert in the psychology and physiology of aging, "normal aging is characterized by modest reductions in the mass and volume of the human brain."

Those young whippersnappers shouldn't start feeling so cocky. Our brains begin shrinking at the absurdly young age of 20. This is due in part to the death of our neurons -- not such a big deal as we have 100 billion of them. There is more trouble to be had with the shrinking of neurons due to lack of use.

Most of us will worry about the shrinking brain issue predominately in terms of our memories. I've noticed that we tend to make endless jokes about it with our peers as if it is an inevitable result of our advancing years. There are age-related snags that have to be considered. There are those neuron losses, which accelerate more if we get older and set in our ways, as well as if we stop using the fuller capacities of our brain. There are also vascular problems that many aging brains deal with, such as restricted flow of blood to the brain due to poor cardiovascular health.

Still, you can turn off the horror-movie soundtrack when that AARP card arrives in the mail. Perhaps you don't remember, but I just reported that these problems can arise as early as 20. And besides, there is much you can do to stop the "pruning" of those neuronal connections by keeping your mind active and open to new challenges. Older people seem to like their routines, but "mixing it up" may be a good prescription.

It is our short-term memory that is the first to go, according to Dr. Israel. This is a problem as it is the short-term memory that is the workhorse of our memory system. It holds onto input for up to a minute at most, sorting out what is important and relevant enough to be sent into the bank of long-term memory.

Enhancing and preserving short-term memory is therefore an important task for those with a "shrinking brain." Two routes to moving information along into the more resilient long-term memory bank is to practice it and to assign significance to it. Israel offers some further guidance on this:

"Information is retained longer and more accurately in long-term memory if it is practiced or rehearsed a lot, related to pre-existing memories in some manner, paired with meaningful or descriptive information, has stimulating emotional content or strong meaning, precedes a good night's sleep."

If this makes you worried about your intellectual edge disappearing, here is an interesting tidbit: Size actually doesn't matter when it comes to our smarts. Einstein's famous brain weighed in at only 2.7 pounds, a full 10 percent smaller than the average brain.

Even so, it doesn't strike me as a particularly good deal -- staying smart but not being able to recall what brilliant thing we just said.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at For more on the topics covered in Healthspan, visit his Web site:

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