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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
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.