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5 Ways You Are Shrinking Your Brain

These common behaviors aren't doing your brain any favors.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Chances are, you probably have a few areas on your body where you wouldn't mind losing some volume. The brain isn't one of them. Every decade after age 40, our brains shrink about 5%, and the process seems to accelerate after age 70. But you want to stall or prevent that process as much as possible. Excessive brain shrinkage (or brain atrophy) is associated with neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. And there are some things we do every day that can prematurely shrink our brains and increase the risk of those disorders. Read on to find out more, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.

1

You're Drinking Too Much Alcohol

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A cocktail or two may help you get out of your head, but regularly overindulging may cause your brain to shrink. Several studies have found that chronic heavy drinking is associated with a reduction of brain volume, including a 2007 study that found the more alcohol people drink on a regular basis, the lower their brain volume is. To stay safe, experts recommend no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

2

You're Drinking (Way) Too Much Coffee

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Java super-addicts might want to dial it back a bit. According to an Australian study released this week, people who reported drinking more than six cups of coffee a day had a 53% higher risk of dementia and smaller brain volume than people who drank less. (The study looked at about 398,000 British people who were followed between eight and 12 years.) But don't take this as a cue to chuck your coffee pot: Moderate coffee consumption has been associated with multiple health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease, several cancers, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. "As with most things in life, moderation is the key. Very high coffee intakes are unlikely to be good for you," said the study's author.

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3

You're Not Getting Enough Exercise

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A study presented last spring found that older adults who get moderate levels of exercise—including walking, gardening, swimming, or dancing—have significantly less brain shrinkage than those who are inactive. The difference was equivalent to four years of brain aging, said researchers from Columbia University, who analyzed brain MRIs of 1,557 older people compared to their levels of physical activity. Scientists have long known that exercise increases the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain—great at any age, but potentially life-extending in the later years.

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4

You're Stressing Out

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A 2018 study published in the journal Neurology found that people who lead high-stress lives may experience brain shrinkage and memory loss even before they turn 50. "Higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, seem to predict brain function, brain size and performance on cognitive tests," said study author Dr. Sudha Seshadri, professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio. "We found memory loss and brain shrinkage in relatively young people long before any symptoms could be seen. It's never too early to be mindful of reducing stress." 

"The brain is a very hungry organ," Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association, told CNN. "It requires an outsized amount of nutrients and oxygen to keep it healthy and functioning properly. So, when the body needs those resources to deal with stress, there's less to go around to the brain."

RELATED: 5 Ways to Prevent Dementia, Says Dr. Sanjay Gupta

5

You Have Untreated Hearing Loss

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A 2014 study at Johns Hopkins found that older people with hearing loss seem to experience accelerated brain shrinkage. Researchers looked at data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging and found that people with impaired hearing lost more than an additional cubic centimeter of brain tissue each year compared with those with normal hearing. Those with impaired hearing also had significantly more shrinkage in areas of the brain responsible for processing sound and speech. It's not entirely clear why—the shrinkage may be due to a lack of stimulation from sound—but the study reinforces that it's important to address hearing loss as soon as possible. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.