How the Aging Brain Affects Thinking
The brain controls many aspects of thinking—remembering, planning and organizing, making decisions, and much more. These cognitive abilities affect how well we do everyday tasks and whether we can live independently.
Some changes in thinking are common as people get older. For example, older adults may have:
- Increased difficulty finding words and recalling names
- More problems with multi-tasking
- Mild decreases in the ability to pay attention
Aging may also bring positive cognitive changes. People often have more knowledge and insight from a lifetime of experiences. Research shows that older adults can still:
- Learn new things
- Create new memories
- Improve vocabulary and language skills
Changes in the Aging Brain
As a person gets older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain.
- Certain parts of the brain shrink, especially those important to learning and other complex mental activities.
- In certain brain regions, communication between neurons (nerve cells) can be reduced.
- Blood flow in the brain may also decrease.
- Inflammation, which occurs when the body responds to an injury or disease, may increase.
These changes in the brain can affect mental function, even in healthy older people. For example, some older adults find that they don't do as well as younger people on complex memory or learning tests. Given enough time, though, they can do as well. There is growing evidence that the brain remains "plastic"—able to adapt to new challenges and tasks—as people age.
It is not clear why some people think well as they get older while others do not. One possible reason is "cognitive reserve," the brain's ability to work well even when some part of it is disrupted. People with more education seem to have more cognitive reserve than others.
For More Information About the Aging Brain
NIA Alzheimer’s and related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
The National Institute on Aging’s ADEAR Center offers information and free print publications about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias for families, caregivers, and health professionals. ADEAR Center staff answer telephone, email, and written requests and make referrals to local and national resources.
This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.
Content reviewed: May 17, 2017