Brain Shrinkage With Age: What It Is and How to Reverse It

Anju Mobin
By Anju Mobin
Joel Taylor
Edited by Joel Taylor

Published February 28, 2022.

A CT scan of a patient with signs of moderate brain atrophy

Brain shrinkage is a normal process that occurs to everyone as they grow old.

Just as your body ages, so does your brain, shrinking about 0.4% every year and stimulating cognitive decline.

So why does your brain shrink? What are the parts of the brain that shrink the most? How can you stop the cognitive decline?

Keep reading to find out.

What Is Brain Shrinkage?

Brain shrinkage is the reduction in the size of the brain volume as you age. In addition, there are changes in the blood flow, loss of brain cells, and cognition causing cerebral atrophy. Life expectancy with brain atrophy is also shorter as compared to people with normal brain function.

What Does Brain Shrinkage Mean?

As you age, your brain shrinks by about 0.4 percent every year. This can lead to cognitive deficiencies such as lack of focus, lack of concentration, memory fog, etc. With this, you lose circulation to and within the brain and the ability to use glucose as fuel.

Even though it's natural, certain conditions can cause quicker degeneration, including injury, diseases, and disorders such as diabetes, hypertension, infections, and alcohol abuse.

Symptoms of Brain Shrinkage

Most symptoms of brain shrinkage are a normal part of aging. Memory lapses, a common symptom of brain shrinkage, are very often experienced by the elderly.

Symptoms of brain shrinkage are:

For the most part, age-related memory lapses are just harmless moments of forgetfulness. However, in some cases, they can be signs of dementia. Brain shrinkage can sometimes lead to seizures, aphasia, and dementia.

Causes of Brain Shrinkage

Causes of forgetfulness can be brain shrinkage, which can have a wide range of etiology. Certain conditions can cause quicker degeneration, including injury, diseases, and disorders such as diabetes, hypertension, infections, and alcohol abuse.

Diseases that cause brain shrinkage are:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Pick's disease
  • Fronto-temporal dementia
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Huntington's disease
  • Leukodystrophies
  • Multiple sclerosis

Infections that cause brain shrinkage include encephalitis, HIV and AIDS, and syphilis. Disorders that can cause brain shrinkage are insulin resistance, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Strokes and traumatic brain injuries can also lead to brain shrinkage.

How Age Plays a Factor in Brain Shrinkage

Brain shrinkage doesn’t happen uniformly—some areas shrink faster than others. Decreased blood flow in the brain and reduced communication between the nerve cells are some of the important causes.

In your 30s, the overall size of the brain starts to reduce, and this continues in your 40s and 50s. The rate of decline is 5% per decade after the age of 40 (1). In your 60s and 70s, the rate at which this reduction takes place is maximized. From there it is a steep downward curve.

The cerebral cortex, especially the frontal lobe, is the first to take the hit. This is followed by the temporal lobe, cerebral vermis, cerebellar hemisphere, and hippocampus.

Improving Your Brain Health as You Age

Because getting older can’t be controlled, brain shrinkage can’t be stopped. However, you can definitely improve your brain health. To improve your working memory and brain health, incorporate the following lifestyle changes into your daily routine.

Eat Healthily

Diet plays a very important role in slowing cognitive decline. Consume sufficient B-vitamins, especially B1, B6, B12, and folic acid. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, lean meat, etc., are good sources. Omega fatty acids, especially DHA that you get via fatty fish and cod liver oil, are foods to heal the brain (2).

Nuts are also very good brain foods. They contain healthy fats, amino acids, and essential nutrients. Walnuts, cashews, and almonds are brain boosters. If you struggle to meet your requirements for these nutrients, consider supplementing them with a handy brain booster.

The brain works better with ketones than glucose, which are produced when you’re in ketosis. Fasting can help you reach ketosis, in which your body starts breaking fat and releasing ketones. Whether prolonged or intermittent fasting, the effect is the same. Fasting increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a compound that's like fertilizer for the brain. Healthy ketosis combined with intermittent fasting will help regrow brain cells.

If you struggle to meet your requirements for these nutrients, consider supplementing them with a handy brain booster.

Reduce Stress

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can damage your brain and be a contributing factor both directly and indirectly to brain shrinkage. Higher cortisol levels also lower your brain volumes and are associated with poor overall cognitive functioning. Stress can lead to several metabolic disorders that cause brain shrinkage, making it an indirect cause. Stress also causes a lack of sleep, which is detrimental to brain health.


In the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Toronto, Canada, exercise and gardening effects on the brain were studied. It confirmed how they slow down brain aging by 10 years for older people (3). Walking, dancing, and gardening are also known to do that.

A controlled trial on 120 older adults showed that aerobic exercise could increase the volume of the front part of the hippocampus. This is responsible for controlling spatial memory—your ability to remember locations. Exercise also increased blood flow and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the hippocampus. This part of the brain can regenerate and help regrow other parts of the brain (4).

Quit Smoking and Drinking Alcohol

It was found that the brain of alcoholics is smaller compared to non-alcoholic brains (5). Alcohol and brain atrophy go hand in hand.

Just like alcohol, smoking can also lead to brain shrinkage. Researchers have found that chronic smoking increases the severity of brain damage. Smokers lose overall brain volume at a faster rate than the ones who do not smoke.

The combined effect of smoking, alcohol consumption, and poor diet is extremely dangerous and usually affects the hippocampus area of the brain. Timely intervention can help reverse the damage to some extent.

Reversing Brain Shrinkage

Not all brains age the same—some deteriorate faster than others. Some parts of the brain can regenerate as they can regrow, while deterioration in some parts can’t be reversed. For example, the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and spatial memory, can regenerate. The same is also true for the subventricular zone of the brain.

It is actually possible to regrow brain cells, increase protective pathways of the nervous system, protect yourself from oxidative damage, and improve your mood and memory. To keep your brain healthy with age, you will have to make some lifestyle changes, reduce stress, quit smoking, exercise more, and eat nourishing foods.

For more info, read Reversing Dementia Naturally: What the Research Says.