Brain Cells Continue to Grow, Even as We Age
Conventional wisdom used to say that people are born with a set number of brain cells and that, as brain cells died, they weren’t replaced. But many studies in the last few years have taken this notion to task. Researchers have discovered that, in fact, we continue to grow new brain cells (neurons) as we age – perhaps even well into our 90s!
A study from the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the donated brains of a group of older adults to see if they could detect the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) even in older brains. In particular, they were looking in a part of the brain that’s involved in forming memories and learning—the hippocampus. Their findings? According to Dr. Orly Lazarov, lead researcher on the study, new neurons continued to grow in the hippocampus of older adults, including those in their 90s. They also discovered that even people who had been living with Alzheimer’s showed signs of neurogenesis and that those who had the telltale brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s, and who also had more new brain cells, had shown fewer outward signs of the disease while they were alive.
So what can you do to increase neurogenesis in your own brain? Experts recommend the following:
Move your body
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Physiology suggests that sustained, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise like jogging, swimming, biking, or hiking may promote the generation of more neurons than resistance training or inactivity.
Stimulate your mind
Learning a new skill or exposing yourself to new environments may also contribute to spurring the growth of new brain cells. Arnold Scheibel, head of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, notes that “anything that’s intellectually challenging can probably serve as a kind of stimulus for dendritic growth, which means it adds to the computational reserves in the brain.” In other words, engaging your mind encourages brain cells and connections to grow.
Reduce your stress
Stress reduces the natural rate of neurogenesis. So anything that reduces stress helps stimulate the growth of new brain cells. This may include meditation, counseling, exercise, sleep and sex.
Eat a nutritious diet
There are some specific nutrients that the brain is particularly fond of and that help promote neurogenesis. Approximately 60 percent of your brain is composed of fat, so it’s important to get enough healthy fats in your diet. And that means loading up on your Omega-3 fatty acids. Food high in omega-3s include many fish, especially wild salmon, herring, and sardines. Other good sources of omega-3s include flaxseed (including flaxseed oil) and walnuts. Flavonoids, a powerful antioxidant, found in high concentrations in blueberries, apples, beans, green tea, dark chocolate and red wine, are also important for growing new brain cells. According to neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret, other practices that encourage neurogenesis include calorie restriction and intermittent fasting.
Although aging slows neurogenesis, there are many things you can do to mitigate the effects of aging on the brain. Even people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other memory loss can benefit from the activities mentioned above.