7 Habits That Literally Cause Your Brain To Shrink

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It might sound creepy to imagine your brain shrinking, but it's something that's part of the natural aging process. However, certain types of lifestyles are worse for your brain, and there are a number of habits that can cause your brain to shrink. As you can imagine, you don't want your brain to prematurely shrink in size, so avoiding these habits can help your cognitive health be at its best.

"Although a shrinking brain seems like some kind of bad Halloween story, our habits can actually change the structure of our brain — for better or for worse," cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, tells Bustle. "The brain is neuroplastic, which essentially means it can change. Negative behaviors and toxic environments can affect the manifold functions and structure of the brain and can potentially cause the brain to 'shrink' over time."

Typically, the brain only truly shrinks in size due to aging and/or disease, which destroys cells within the brain making it physically smaller over time, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath, tells Bustle. Most other processes simply reduce brain density, which mean they don’t kill cells, but they decrease the amount of communication between them.

To keep your brain as healthy as possible, you'll want to be mindful of these seven habits that could cause it to shrink, according to experts.

1. Stress

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"Like everything in life, the way we view stressful situations can affect the way they impact on our mental and physical health," Dr. Leaf says. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been linked to reduced brain volume, which can lead to poorer performance on some memory and thinking tasks, according to research published in the journal Neurology.

2. Not Sleeping Enough

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People who typically experience disrupted sleep have a smaller brain mass than those who obtain longer, more solid sleep, according to research published in the journal Neurology. "It is never too early to start establishing a healthy sleep schedule," clinical sports neuropsychologist Dr. Erin Reynolds, Psy.D., tells Bustle. "If you have chronic sleep disruption, talk to your physician about ways in which to improve sleep quality."

3. Drinking Alcohol

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Spending too much time at happy hour can have negative consequences for your brain. Research out of the University of Oxford found that even moderate drinking is linked to shrinkage in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with cognition and learning. "Even moderate levels of alcohol can disrupt sleep leading to density loss," Dr. Horvath says. While it's OK to drink alcohol every once and a while, it's important to be mindful about possible effects on your health.

4. Being Inactive

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Taking time to exercise is as important for your brain as it as for your body. "A recent study in the journal Neurology shows how a sedentary lifestyle can potentially reduce brain volume over time, especially as we age, impacting our ability to think well and recall information," Dr. Leaf says. "In fact, physical activity increases blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex, which is activated when we shift between thoughts in a flexible manner."

5. Processed Foods

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What you eat can affect your brain health as well. "Highly processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat can affect the way the brain builds memory and functions, damaging the blood-brain barrier and potentially leading to the formation of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s," Dr. Leaf says. One study published in the journal BMC Medicine found that people who regularly consume sugary drinks, high-sodium snacks, and processed meat tend to have a smaller hippocampus.

6. Smoking

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Smoking can not only harm your lungs, but may harm your brain as well. Research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found that long-term smokers have thinner cerebral cortexes, an area of the brain that plays a role in memory, language, and perception. Stopping smoking can help to restore at least part of the cortex's thickness, but the process is slow, according to the study.

7. Having A Rigid Routine

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You might want to consider becoming more spontaneous. "When we achieve mastery over and can automate mental and physical skills, brain density begins to decrease," Dr. Horvath says. "This is due to the relevant wire networks becoming more efficient. Interestingly, when we live in routine long enough, brain density across other, seemingly unrelated networks begins to decrease too."

To keep your mind healthy, be mindful of these brain-shrinking habits.