Many worry that with age will come lost memories and a certain degree of lost intellect. Unfortunately, this can be a reality for some. A study published by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) suggests that the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) increases as we age. Their results showed that the rate of MCI was 6.7% in those aged 60-64 and had increased to 14.9% in those aged 80-84. Although a number of senior citizens will eventually lose some of their cognitive abilities, there are ways to fight back. Keep reading to learn more about the atrophy of the brain and what you can do to delay it as long as possible.
What is brain atrophy?
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH), brain atrophy (sometimes referred to as “cerebral atrophy”) is when the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain die, and the brain loses the connections between those neurons. There are two types of brain atrophy, which are:
This type of brain atrophy is when the damaged neurons are located in a specific area of the brain, which means that the impairment is shown only in the area(s) that were controlled by the damaged part of the brain.
This type of brain atrophy is when the damaged neurons are located throughout the entirety of the brain, which means that the brain gradually “shrinks” over time.
What causes atrophy of the brain?
Brain atrophy can be caused by neurological diseases, brain injuries, or certain infectious diseases, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Some of the conditions that can cause brain atrophy are:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Cerebral Palsy
- Huntington’s Disease
- AIDS or HIV
- Traumatic Brain Injury
What are the symptoms of brain atrophy?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, brain atrophy can range in severity from mild brain atrophy that causes few symptoms (perhaps only mere memory loss) to severe brain atrophy that causes a number of neurological symptoms and, in extreme cases, death.
Brain atrophy symptoms will differ from patient to patient as the symptoms depend on the part of the brain that is affected, according to the NIH. The possible brain atrophy symptoms are:
- Memory loss
- Struggling with communication
- Becoming increasingly uncoordinated
- Weakness in parts of the body
- Changes in sensations such as numbness, tingling, etc.
- Blurry eyesight
- Double vision
- Aphasia (trouble with speaking and understanding speech/language)
Can brain atrophy be reversed?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is no. According to the Cleveland Clinic, once the damage has been done, atrophy of the brain cannot be reversed. However, there are things you can do to manage symptoms and prevent or delay further brain atrophy.
What treatments are available for brain atrophy?
The Cleveland Clinic notes that treatment for brain atrophy will vary greatly depending on the condition. For example, there are medications that delay brain atrophy in many neurological diseases. Once the damage has already been done, physical therapy and speech therapy can be beneficial as well. In rare cases, surgery may be recommended.
Preventing brain atrophy
While genetics does play a role in many of the causes of brain atrophy, there are many things that can be done to stave off certain conditions or to delay further damage once the condition is present. Some loss of brain cells is normal during the aging process. However, “brain atrophy” is a term used when the damage is exceeding what is normally expected with aging.
The following may reduce some of the risk factors of brain atrophy and improve quality of life:
- Follow a healthy diet, low in cholesterol and high in nutrients (consider the Mediterranean diet)
- Exercise daily (especially aerobic exercise)
- Get plenty of rest
- Manage your blood pressure and stress levels
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Stop smoking
- Follow your doctor’s recommendations for medications to control blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes
Exercises to Help Combat Brain Atrophy
Once you’ve incorporated the healthy lifestyle choices above, there are fun ways to “exercise” the brain as well. According to one Mayo Clinic article, keeping your brain engaged in various ways may also provide brain-boosting benefits. The article recommends the following strategies to achieve this:
Challenge your mind
Instead of watching so much TV, enjoy activities that stimulate the mind more, such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, reading, or card games. Be sure to increase the difficulty to give your brain a challenge.
Socializing not only has the potential to lower instances of depression and stress, but studies suggest that isolation is linked to brain atrophy. This suggests that the opposite (being socially active) could have a positive effect.
Maintain a Healthy Mind
Some people are bound to lose some nerve cells as they age, and many may experience mild cognitive decline. But this is no reason to give into brain atrophy or to not take preventative measures against it. By making some necessary lifestyle changes, you can delay the symptoms of brain atrophy and improve your quality of life. Keeping yourself healthy and happy for as long as possible is worth the effort.
If you or a loved one has been experiencing symptoms related to brain atrophy, such as dementia, mixed dementia, or increased memory loss, learn how the services at Haven Health can help.
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Cerebral Atrophy. (2023).
Kidd, K. (2022). 6 tips to keep your brain healthy.
Peterson, R. (2017). Practice guideline update summary: Mild cognitive impairment.