What Happens to the Brain After Age 40?

Eighteen years ago in 2004, Bruce Yankner, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, investigated how human brains change between ages 26 and 106. His research found that some people between 40 and 70 had gene patterns more like younger people and some more like older people.

He and his colleagues at Children’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard studied brain tissue from 30 people for changes in genes involved in learning and memory and for damage to these genes caused by the normal stresses of living. These were some of the findings:

  • From ages 26 to 40 years, brains show similar patterns of wear and tear and low levels of gene damage. Brains 73 years and older exhibited more damage, as expected;
  • People in their middle-age years show variable rates of brain aging;
  • Researchers found genes involved in learning and memory were among those most significantly reduced in the aging human brain; 
  • Other glitches appear in a set of genes that regulate energy protection and transport of proteins in cells, functions vital for normal brain activity and to protect brain cells from damage. Some of these alterations show up in people as young as their 40s;
  • Younger brains apparently can prevent impairment of these genes. But in middle age, damaging modifications start to creep in. By age 50, gene patterns in some brains look like those of older people, while others resemble those of young adults. They appear to be approaching old age at different speeds.

A goal of the Harvard research was to determine if the gene changes raised the risk of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, hoping the findings might accelerate the detection and treatment of such diseases.

New Research Adds to Findings about Changes in the Brain After Age 40

Fast-forward to a new study by Monash University that was released last month. The study added to the findings about our brains changing after age 40, claiming that at this time, the brain begins to undergo a radical “rewiring.”

Similar to the Harvard study, the research, published in the journal Psychophysiology, sought to summarize how the connectivity of the human brain changes over our lifetimes. The gathered evidence suggests that after age 40, the brain starts to undergo a “rewiring” that results in diverse networks becoming more integrated and connected over the ensuing decades, with accompanying effects on cognition.

Here are some of the findings from the Monash University study:

  • The Monash University team examined the brains of tens of thousands of subjects. From this analysis, the researchers derived a general trend in how the networked brain changes over the course of our lives;
  • Early on, in our teenage and young adult years, the brain appears to have a high degree of internal connectivity, reflecting the ability for specialized processing to take place. This makes sense because it’s during this time that we learn to play sports, speak languages, and develop talents;
  • Around the mid-40s, the brain begins to become less connected within these separate networks and more connected globally across networks;
  •  From the age of 80, the brain tends to be less regionally specialized and more broadly networked and integrated;
  • On a positive note, as our brains become less compartmentalized and more connected as a whole, it allows for better vocabulary and general knowledge in later years;
  • As always, proper diet and regular exercise are necessary to keep the mind in good working order.

Why Do These Changes Occur?

So why do these brain networking changes even occur in the first place? The researchers noted that the brain is “a resource-hungry organ, ravenous for the simple sugar glucose. The adult brain accounts for approximately 2% of total body weight but requires approximately 20% of total glucose supply,” they wrote. They also explained that, “(a)s we get older, our bodies tend to slow down and the brain becomes less efficient. So not only is the brain getting less glucose, it’s also not putting the fuel to good use. Thus, the networking changes likely result from the brain reorganizing itself to function as well as it can with dwindling resources and aging ‘hardware.’”

Researchers believe that with studies like this, we are starting to get a surface view of how the brain changes across our lifetimes.

Should You Worry about Your Brain?

If you are in your 40s, should you worry about your brain? Yankner points out that not all middle-agers are in the fast-aging lane. “Some of the people 50, 60, and older had remarkably good-looking brains,” Yankner points out. “That group includes one man in his early 90s. People can take solace from that.”

As mimicked in many of the studies on longevity and the brain, the Monash University study states that “(p)roper diet, regular exercise, and a healthy lifestyle can keep the mind in good working order and put networking changes on hold, sometimes well into old age.” According to Dr. Jarash Javanbacht, a psychiatrist and neurologist, aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises affect how genes are expressed, leading to positive changes in the neuronal connections and function. He also discusses how moderate exercise regulates the immune system and excessive inflammation. This is important, given the potential role of inflammation in anxiety and depression. There is also evidence that exercise has an effect on brain chemicals that send signals between neurons – dopamine and endorphins. Both of these are involved in positive mood and motivation.

So, be sure to check with your doctor first and add exercise to your schedule, if you can. Please read my other articles on this topic for more details. 

Plan in Advance for Peace of Mind

As we get older, it is important to do what we can to keep our brains sharp and our bodies healthy to stave off whatever negative brain changes may occur. It is also important to plan in advance for much-needed peace of mind! If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning (or had your documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us to make an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435

Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041

DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

Leave a comment

Thank you for your upload