Aging Well
Brain Health

Nine Brain-Aging "Sins" That Kill Your Competitive Edge

It’s Monday morning, and Michael, a senior executive at a global telecommunications company, faces the week utterly exhausted. Only 38, he’s been a high-level leader with the firm for more than a decade. Once, he was a wunderkind, an “energizer” on the fast track to become the company’s youngest-ever CEO. But those days are over. Now, Michael is perpetually depleted, and his pinpoint focus has given way to constant brain fog. He struggles with stress and anxiety every day—a state of mind (and body) that’s killing his performance capacity.

There are many “Michaels” out there, says Marcel Daane, a performance expert who synthesizes best practices from nutrition, exercise, and neuroscience. As demands grow and resources shrink, we all struggle to do more with less—and without proper coping skills, we slide down a slippery slope of chronic exhaustion into debilitating burnout. That’s bad news for the middle-age-ish among us who must compete with the endless line of fresh-faced, energetic younger workers jostling for position.

“Working while fatigued once in a while is okay, but when this state becomes chronic, our resilience against stress drops,” notes Daane, author of Headstrong Performance: Improve Your Mental Performance with Nutrition, Exercise, and Neuroscience ( “Enthusiasm and motivation plunge, and before we know it, we can no longer perform at our best.

“What’s more, this endless fatigue ages us rapidly,” he adds. “You don’t just feel older than your age; you are older. Your capacity to regenerate the cells in your body and brain falls off sharply.”

That’s right: Stress is a potent cause of neurodegeneration. The brains of people who are chronically fatigued show signs of shrinking, which means stressed executives have about the same brain capacity as people decades older. “This deterioration of critical brain regions hinders memory processing, strategic planning, and the ability to manage anxiety, which are all crucial skills for the executive,” says Daane. “The deficiencies can knock you out of the game. Mental sharpness and the ability to innovate, collaborate, and connect are the price of admission in today’s world.”

The good news is we can affect how fast our brain ages, depending on how we treat it throughout life. Research at King’s College in the UK shows the brains of elderly people who practice a healthy lifestyle are the same as people decades younger.

“The lesson is clear: Overworked executives can go a long way toward keeping their brains young and high-performing,” says Daane. “We may not be able to control our workload but we can control our lifestyle choices.”

Daane says we may be committing predictable brain-aging “sins” on a regular basis. Here are nine of the most damaging: