Can You Prevent Your Brain From Shrinking?

Learn how to slow down brain decline, plus four other fascinating facts.

Updated on January 6, 2022

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The brain is a highly complex organ in which 86 billion nerve cells, or neurons, constantly talk to each other. All that chatter is what makes you cringe when someone steps on your foot, laugh when you hear a joke, or remember where you left your phone.

The largest part of the brain is the cerebrum. These are the wrinkles and folds that you probably picture when you think of the brain. This region is covered by the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer that we often refer to as “gray matter.” The cerebrum handles higher brain functions like thoughts, emotions, sensory processing, and actions. Those folds and wrinkles provide more surface area for more information to be processed.

The brainstem is the powerhouse link between your brain and your spinal cord. It controls your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. The cerebellum, meanwhile, is a wrinkled ball that sits behind the rest of your brain. It helps coordinate movement by working with sensory information from your eyes, ears, and muscles. 

Although the brain is immensely complicated, researchers have managed to uncover many fascinating truths about it.

Medically reviewed in January 2022.

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The brain isn’t fully developed until your 20s

Researchers previously believed that the brain stopped growing by puberty. Now researchers know that the brain continues to develop well into your 20s. In fact, the frontal lobes, which are important for planning and impulse control, are among the last parts to fully develop. Little wonder you may have made some bad judgement calls in your teen years, like a regrettable tattoo or a brush with the law.

The brain constantly matures throughout adolescence. The areas responsible for memory, language, creativity, and attention are among those that continue to undergo changes.

Gray matter growth peaks at about age 11 for girls and age 12 for boys. After this stage, the prefrontal cortex, which makes up the part of your brain responsible for judgement, becomes more developed.

Although children do already have some impulse control and can plan and set goals, their ability to use these skills becomes more consistent as they get older. So don’t be surprised if your decision-making skills got a lot better well into your 20s.

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The brain shrinks over time, and several factors can influence it

Brain volume naturally shrinks with age at a rate of about five percent per decade after the age of 40. While the loss of brain volume doesn’t correlate to a lower IQ, in some cases it signals some loss of thinking skills. It turns out that some factors under our control can speed up brain shrinkage.

In a 2011 study published in Neurology, researchers measured blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol levels in 1,352 adults averaging 54 years old who did not have dementia. They also took MRI scans of their brains. Ten years later, the researchers remeasured the size of the participants’ brains, then tested their planning and organizational skills.

The researchers found that four factors coincided with shrinking brain volume: high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking, and an increasing waist-to-hip ratio (a measure of how much abdominal fat a person is carrying). The changes in brain structure also went hand-in-hand with worsening memory and thinking skills. The results of the study suggest that certain controllable factors can affect how sharp our minds remain as we age.

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We use a lot more than 10 percent of our brainpower

With so many books on the market about unlocking untapped brainpower, it’s not surprising that so many people still believe that we only use 10 percent of the brain. That is a myth. The truth is, we use all of it. Even when you think your brain is inactive, such as when you sleep, it’s busily at work, doing things like sorting through what happened during the day and committing important details to memory.

The 10 percent idea originated in the early 1900s, likely with a famous psychologist named William James, who taught that people have immense untapped mental potential. Spread by others, including science fiction writers, that myth fueled the self-help market, and it’s been repeated to this day.

Of course, you can always learn new things and new ways of thinking. But the next time someone tries to sell you something that they say will unleash your unused brainpower, you might want tosave your money. Your brain is already firing on all cylinders.

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There is no left-brain/right-brain personality type

You might be great at solving math problems, while your best friend is an amazing musician. But contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t make you “left-brained” and your friend “right-brained.”

It’s true that the human brain has a right and a left hemisphere. In most people, the left side’s lobes are responsible for speech and certain kinds of math problems, while the right side is important in spatial thinking and in interpreting music. But complex thought draws on both sides of the brain, and there is little to no evidence that one’s overall personality is determined by one hemisphere or the other.

In a 2013 study, researchers at the University of Utah studied brain scans of over 1,000 people between the ages of seven and 29 to see if people tend to use one side of their brain more than the other. The researchers then examined the scans to see which parts of the brain were most active. There was no evidence that either side dominated, much less that there was a way to predict who leaned in a logical or creative direction.

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Your brain doesn't like the cold

Have you ever had an icy-cold drink or ice cream and felt a sudden stabbing pain in your head?

Most people call this ice-cream headache or brain freeze, and there’s actually a scientific term for it: sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Try saying that with a mouthful of ice cream!

The sharp pain can be triggered either by exposure to something cold, like drinking or eating something very cold too fast, or by exposing your head to very cold temperatures.

Here’s why scientists think it happens. Arteries that feed your brain pass near the roof of your mouth. When you eat or drink something cold, they reflexively constrict to preserve your body heat. Then they dilate. That fast re-expansion sends a pain signal to your brain through a nerve called the trigeminal, which causes a quick burst of pain in your face and forehead. Thankfully, “brain freeze” typically doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes. 

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Mercadante AA, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Gray Matter. [Updated 2021 Jul 31]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Brain Anatomy and How the Brain Works. Accessed Dec. 29, 2021.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. How to Ease Brain Freeze. Accessed Dec. 29, 2021.
Johnson SB, Blum RW, Giedd JN. Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. J Adolesc Health. 2009;45(3):216-221.
Nielsen JA, Zielinski BA, Ferguson MA, Lainhart JE, Anderson JS. An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging. PLoS One. 2013;8(8):e71275. Published 2013 Aug 14.
Carl Sherman. Right Brain, Left Brain: A Misnomer. Dana Foundation. Aug. 2, 2019.
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Abd Hamid AI, Yusoff AN, Mukari SZ, Mohamad M. Brain Activation during Addition and Subtraction Tasks In-Noise and In-Quiet. Malays J Med Sci. 2011;18(2):3-15.
Samson S. Musical Function and Temporal Lobe Structures: A review of Brain Lesion Studies, J New Music Research 1999;28:3, 217-228.
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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Obesity Prevention Source. Waist Size Matters. Accessed Jan. 6, 2022.

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