A new study could revise the belief that older brains are substantially smaller than younger brains. The position reversal may stem from earlier studies including individuals with undiagnosed early brain disease.

As a result, previous findings may have overestimated atrophy and underestimated normal size for the older brain.

The new investigation by Dutch scientists evaluated participants who were free of neurological problems such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease or stroke.

Individuals were issued a battery of neuropsychological tests, including a screening test for dementia, at baseline and every three years afterward for nine years.

According to the report in the journal Neuropsychology, participants were given MRI scans in year 3 to measure seven different parts of the brain, including the memory-laden hippocampus, the areas around it, and the frontal and cingulate areas of the cognitively critical cortex.

As a result of their investigation, researchers posit age-related atrophy in gray matter more likely reflects pathological changes in the brain that underlie significant cognitive decline — rather than aging itself.

In other words, as long as people stay cognitively healthy, their brain may not display significant size reduction.

“If future longitudinal studies find similar results, our conception of ‘normal’ brain aging may become more optimistic,” said lead author Saartje Burgmans.

Source: American Psychological Association