How Your Brain Changes as You Age
Most medical and scientific authorities agree that the mind's ability to think clearly and quickly does change with age, but those changes aren't necessarily linked to menopause. Sometimes women mistake the transitory changes associated with hormone shifts for serious cognitive losses. It may be reassuring to note that the brain doesn't have a “use by” shelf life and that most nerves are capable of lasting 100 years or more. But changes in the brain's physical size and functions do occur with age, and those changes can have an impact on how well you access information stored in your brain.
Memory and the Frontal Lobes
The human brain shrinks slightly after age fifty as a result of a loss of water content. The shrinkage itself doesn't impair your memory, but the loss of frontal-lobe volume that accompanies that loss can. Some neuroscientists believe frontal lobes can shrink up to 30 percent between the ages of fifty and ninety. Frontal lobes are critical to complex thinking — your ability to reason, pay attention, and perform multiple tasks at the same time. A diminished capacity in your frontal lobes can diminish your abilities in all of these cognitive functions, and can interfere with some of your long-term memory functions.
If you plan to live for a long time, you need to take good care of your mind. You can calculate how long you're likely to live online at
More Memory Functions in the Hippocampus
Perhaps most important to preserving memory and recall is the brain's hippocampus — the part of the brain where memory is created, stored, and retrieved. Some researchers believe the hippocampus can deteriorate with age — resulting in a slowdown of the brain's ability to store and retrieve memory. Exacerbating this slowdown are metabolic changes and a dwindling number of dendrites — the neurons that transmit the brain's signals. All of these changes can combine to affect your brain, making your mental sharpness feel duller and slower.
You don't need to panic that you're suffering an onset of early Alzheimer's disease every time you misplace your car keys — especially not as you approach the age of menopause. Many of the symptoms of menopause, including mood swings, sleeplessness, increased susceptibility to stress, and fluctuating levels of hormones, can contribute to less efficient cognitive functions — but most of these symptoms are relatively mild and transient.
Not all the news about aging brains is bad. Studies show that myelination, the process of coating the brain with “white matter,” continues throughout one's lifetime. This creates the capacity for more integrated and “big picture” thinking as a person ages, and can lead to the subtle developmental intelligence usually called “wisdom.”