brain scan view
Brain Health

The Aging Brain

The brain changes as we get older, but not everyone’s brain changes the same way. The experts from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) explain how our brain functions and what we might expect as we get older:

The brain controls many aspects of thinking—remembering, planning and organizing, making decisions, and much more. These cognitive abilities affect how well we do everyday tasks and whether we can live independently.

Some changes in thinking are common as people get older. For example, older adults may have:

increased difficulty finding words and recalling names

more problems with multi-tasking

mild decreases in the ability to pay attention

Aging may also bring positive cognitive changes. People often have more knowledge and insight from a lifetime of experiences. Research shows that older adults can still:

learn new things

create new memories

improve vocabulary and language skills

The Older, Healthy Brain

As a person ages, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain:

Certain parts of the brain shrink, especially those important to learning and other complex mental activities.     In certain brain regions, communication between neurons (nerve cells) can be reduced.    Blood flow in the brain may also decrease.  Inflammation, which occurs when the body responds to an injury or disease, may increase.

These changes in the brain can affect mental function, even in healthy older people. For example, some older adults find that they don’t do as well as younger people on complex memory or learning tests. Given enough time, though, they can do as well. There is growing evidence that the brain remains “plastic”—able to adapt to new challenges and tasks—as people age.

It is not clear why some people think well as they get older while others do not. One possible reason is “cognitive reserve,” the brain’s ability to work well even when some part of it is disrupted. People with more education seem to have more cognitive reserve than others.

Some brain changes, like those associated with Alzheimer’s disease, are not a normal part of aging. Talk with your healthcare provider if you are concerned.

Brain Regions

The brain is complex and has many specialized parts. For example, the two halves of the brain, called cerebral hemispheres, are responsible for intelligence.

The cerebral hemispheres have an outer layer called the cerebral cortex. This region, the brain’s “gray matter,” is where the brain processes sensory information, such as what we see and hear. The cerebral cortex also controls movement and regulates functions such as thinking, learning, and remembering.

How Brain Cells Work

The healthy human brain contains many different types of cells. Neurons are nerve cells that process and send information throughout the brain, and from the brain to the muscles and organs of the body.

The ability of neurons to function and survive depends on three important processes: