Everybody knows that the brain changes as the body ages. What many people don’t realize is that there are many aging differences between men’s and women’s brains.
Common Changes in the Brain During Aging
As people grow older, the brain changes and even physically shrinks. This process is natural and not to be confused with disorders like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. After the age of forty, the brain’s mass decreases about five percent every decade. Most of the shrinkage occurs in the hippocampus and the frontal lobe.
These physical changes have noticeable mental effects. Since the hippocampus and the frontal lobe are responsible for memory, this is the area where mental functioning is most dramatically affected. Aging people find it harder to make new memories, while old memories often begin to fade. Phrases, names, and numbers slowly become more difficult to memorize. Focus is harder to come by, and multitasking becomes more difficult. It also becomes more challenging to learn new skills.
Aging Differences Between Men and Women
While the shrinking brain and diminishing cognitive functioning is common to both genders, there are significant aging differences between men and women. These differences are caused by the genders’ distinct hormones. Both testosterone and estrogen boost energy levels in the brain, but men tend to maintain the same levels of testosterone later in life, while women’s estrogen normally declines during middle age with the onset of menopause. The hormonal effects of menopause affect a woman’s brain, making it more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and even Alzheimer’s.
For women, these hormonal changes are the main cause for changes in the brain as they age. Social situations seem to be another major factor. Women who are dependent on others for their day-to-day living or who lack a strong social network seem to suffer more from cognitive impairment. Independence, meanwhile, provides a bulwark against cognitive decay.
For men, neither social circumstances nor hormones seem to play so large a role. Instead, it is physical maladies like stroke, diabetes and obesity that bring about mental impairment. A man who is physically fit and doesn’t suffer from any major ailments is likely to maintain higher mental functioning than a man who has a history of health issues.
How You Can Promote a Healthy Brain
There are certain measures that both men and women should take to make their brains as resistant as possible to the effects of aging. Nutritious foods like spinach and kale have been shown to boost cognitive functioning. Regular exercise also keeps the brain sharp. Mental stimulation is another important factor, as studies have shown that regular engagement with art, literature and intellectual activities can arrest the mental decline normally associated with aging.
Given the aging differences between men and women, there are also some gender-specific areas that older people should focus on in the quest to maintain their mental capacities. For women, stress is a major factor in mental decline. Stress brings an increase in the hormone cortisol, which in turn causes decreased production of estrogen. Less estrogen means less energy for the brain, making a stressed woman more susceptible to mental decline. Reducing the stress brings the hormonal balance back where it should be, and the renewed production of estrogen is beneficial for the aging brain.
Men, meanwhile, should focus intently on their physical health as a way of staving off mental decline. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help reduce the onset of stroke and diabetes. These very same measures also prevent obesity. While going to the gym every day might be impossible, a simple exercise like a daily walk can be a great method for promoting physical and mental health. For men, a healthy body is the key to a healthy mind.
The shrinking of the brain is a natural part of the aging process, and while it occurs in both men and women, the genders are affected differently. The aging differences between men’s and women’s brains mean that different approaches should be taken to combat mental decline. By taking gender into account, people can make informed decisions about how to keep their mind as sharp as possible in their later years.