New research shows that brain network in the brain gradually become less interconnected and resistant to disruption as we age. The areas of the brain that function in cognition and focus are the most affected by aging, meaning that aging may also often lead to a shorter attention span and declining memory. This may notably impact older adults’ ability to function in day-to-day activities, spur earlier retirement, and eventually reduce the quality of life.
Cognitive decline is an increasingly prevalent issue, with the aging population growing larger than ever. This new research relating to aging brain networks provides key insights into how cognitive decline may be avoided in the future.
Brain Networks in a Healthy Brain
The human brain consists of several interconnected networks. These networks play varying roles in a person’s ability to adapt and react to external circumstances. To function effectively, brain networks must transfer messages between each other while maintaining distinctiveness in their cognitive roles.
A brain network must be able to efficiently interpret messages from other networks to complete tasks. Research has revealed that while the structure of the brain plays a role in the framework of network connectivity, cognitive responses often require “long-range” connections or communication between brain networks that aren’t considered to be in close proximity to each other in the brain.
These facts reveal that communication between brain networks is fundamental to cognition. Simply put, advanced cognition needs the combined work of more than one brain region. While interconnectivity is found in younger brains, aging may cause this to diminish, in turn diminishing an individual’s cognitive abilities.
How Cognition Changes with Age
A certain degree of cognitive decline is a normal part of aging. Even healthy individuals eventually suffer from cognitive impairment with age. Difficulties with memory, speed in interpreting information, and reasoning are examples of normal symptoms of aging; older adults often produce lower results on learning and memory evaluations.
The effects of aging on the brain may begin far earlier than most would expect, with the process of cognitive deterioration already in effect at the age of 40. Additionally, the volume of grey matter in humans begins to diminish after the age of 20. Grey matter is brain and spinal cord tissue that’s mostly made up of nerves. By the time an individual has reached later life, the grey matter in the body has significantly atrophied. This is considered normal within the realm of brain aging but does negatively impact information processing, memory, and attention in older adults.
The brain’s ability to communicate and provide vital signals for bodily functions are reduced with age. This is widely characterized as neuronal atrophy, which comes along with an increase in background noise within the brain. The increased random activity in the brain inhibits brain networks from sending accurate signals; with this process, the transmitted information may more commonly include errors.
It’s worth noting that not all brain functions become less effective in older age. In fact, certain cognitive abilities are often stronger in older adults than in their younger counterparts, such as vocabulary. Also, older adults are largely able to retain information learned from experience or education (also known as crystallized intelligence). Fluid intelligence, which encompasses problem-solving skills and abstract reasoning, is the type of intelligence that abates in old age.
In addition, recent evidence has shown that the brain maintains its plasticity in older age. When a brain is a plastic, it means that it’s able to respond and react efficiently to new demands. So, contrary to common misconceptions, older adults are often quite able to adapt to challenges and learn new skills.
Looking Forward in Brain Aging Innovations
We’ve established that cognitive decline is considered a normal aspect of aging. But, this doesn’t mean that cognitive decline is inevitable, or that the symptoms of brain aging will remain as a widespread issue among older adults.
Understanding gradual shifts in the brain over the course of a lifespan greatly advance efforts to reduce the deterioration of cognitive abilities in older age. Researchers are working to analyze the effects of elements like cardiovascular health and genetics on brain health. This may eventually produce the necessary information to prevent the decline of brain network communication. With the population aging at a rapid rate, research regarding cognitive decline is more important now than it has ever been.
With a complete understanding of the intricate biological processes of the brain, potential solutions for the cognitive decline may be developed. Scientists predict that diet and lifestyle changes, along with consistent brain activity, could be beneficial in the prevention of brain aging. In the future, there may even be drugs to help stall or avoid the dwindling of cognitive abilities.
Efforts to stall brain aging will improve the quality of life for many older adults. But, it may also help treat a variety of cognitive diseases. The natural process of cognitive decline increases an individual’s susceptibility to illness, as well as cerebrovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. So, in the process of innovating treatments for cognitive deterioration, researchers may make progress toward an advanced treatment for various diseases.
With the findings of new research into cognitive changes with aging, we have more certainty of how the brain naturally declines with age. As established in this article, brain networks lose their efficiency in transmitting and interpreting messages over time – a necessary ability for advanced cognition. As a result, older adults may have reduced memory and abstract reasoning, as well as require more time to process new information.
In researching and understanding the natural decline of the brain over time, our society may eventually hold the key to maintaining full cognitive ability throughout older age. In improving the prevention of cognitive decline, we may discover new, effective treatments for chronic diseases that most commonly impact the aging population. After all, the average age of the population is rising, so research to reduce the negative symptoms of aging will become increasingly relevant as the world evolves.