Old Brains Shrink But Work Just as Well

Some Imagination! How Memory Fails Us

Scientists know that our brains shrink with aging, but does less gray matter really matter?

Apparently not, according to a new study of 446 people in Australia.

"We found that, on average, men aged 64 years have smaller brains than men aged 60," said Helen Christensen of the Australian National University. "However, despite this shrinkage, cognitive functions -- like memory, attention and speed of processing -- are unaffected."

The conclusion was based on questionnaires and brain scans.

The study, announced Friday, yielded another surprise. Previous studies had indicated that higher levels of education or continuing intellectual activity could serve as a sort of Pilates for the brain, keeping an aging mind fit.

"Our findings do not support these beliefs," Christensen said. "In the present study, we found no relationship between brain shrinkage and education level."

Older minds do sometimes fail, of course, owing to conditions such as Alzheimer's that scientists are only beginning to understand. Little is known about brain shrinkage, too.

"It is known that the brain shrinks over the course of a person's life, although the exact trajectory is not well understood, and there are huge individual differences," Christensen said.

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Robert Roy Britt

Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.