What to Know About Cerebral Atrophy (Brain Atrophy)

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Hammond, M.D.
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Cerebral atrophy, or brain atrophy, describes the loss of brain cells over time. This results in certain areas of the brain, or the entire brain, shrinking. Brain atrophy can be the result of different conditions, including infection and injury. Some amount of brain atrophy is typical with age. Symptoms of brain atrophy include dementia, seizures, a loss of motor control, and difficulty with speaking, reading, and comprehension. These symptoms develop slowly with age and may not be noticeable until a person is at an advanced age.

When atrophy is due to another cause, however, these symptoms can develop over a shorter period of time and be more noticeable to yourself and others.

In some cases, it may be possible to stop your brain from shrinking. In other cases, however, atrophy gets worse over time.

This article contains more information about brain atrophy, including how it happens and how to treat it.

What is cerebral atrophy?

doctors studying mri results
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Cerebral atrophy refers to the progressive loss of brain cells over time. “Atrophy” means a loss of cells in any body tissue, so brain atrophy is when part or all of the brain shrinks because brain cells die.

Brain atrophy can lead to decreased brain mass and a loss of neurological function, but the exact symptoms will depend on the cause and location of the cell death.

Cerebral atrophy can occur due to:

  • aging 
  • a brain injury
  • a stroke
  • a neurological condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, or Huntington’s disease
  • an infection

Depending on the underlying cause, brain atrophy may progress very slowly or very rapidly.

There is no known cure. Treatment for cerebral atrophy focuses on treating the symptoms and complications from the loss of brain cells. If an infection is causing atrophy, treating the infection may stop your brain from shrinking. 

There are two important things to know about brain atrophy. You should always:

  • Seek immediate medical care for serious symptoms of cerebral atrophy, such as seizures or a loss of consciousness.
  • Seek prompt medical care for any symptoms of cerebral atrophy that interfere with your daily life, such as changes in your level of responsiveness or difficulty with speaking, vision, or movement.

Frequently asked questions

Some questions people ask about cerebral atrophy include the following.

Can you recover from brain atrophy? 

You cannot reverse brain atrophy because once brain cells have been lost, they do not regenerate. However, depending on the cause of the atrophy, certain medications and therapies can help with symptoms and function, respectively. 

Can you live with brain atrophy? 

The answer to this question depends on how much brain tissue dies. You may be able to live with brain atrophy with certain therapies and medications to help manage symptoms. However, the brain is a vital organ, so atrophy can affect your lifespan. Eventually, a person with brain atrophy will no longer be able to care for themselves and will need supervised care.

What causes the brain to atrophy? 

A small degree of brain shrinkage happens with age, but typical brain shrinkage will not lead to severe symptoms. Severe brain atrophy occurs as a result of a disease, injury, or infection. 

At what age does brain atrophy begin? 

Normal brain changes start to occur after a person reaches 40 years of age. However, brain atrophy from an illness, injury, or infection could occur at any time. 

How do you stop the brain from shrinking?

You can help support brain health by leading an active lifestyle, regularly exercising, getting enough sleep, managing stress and any chronic health conditions, and eating a balanced diet. 

What foods heal the brain? 

Some foods that have been associated with brain health include fish, vegetables, fruits, beans, dark chocolate, and green tea. 

What foods harm the brain?

Eating too many processed, high fat, and high sugar foods can be detrimental to the brain. Additionally, not eating enough of the right foods, such as fruits and vegetables, may be harmful to the brain as well. 

Learn more about the brain here.

What are the symptoms of cerebral atrophy?

There are two types of symptoms associated with brain atrophy: generalized and localized.

Generalized symptoms of cerebral atrophy

Generalized symptoms of cerebral atrophy arise from a loss of brain cells throughout the brain. With this category of symptoms, you may experience cerebral atrophy symptoms daily or just once in a while.

At times, any of these symptoms can be severe:

  • changes in mood, personality, or behavior
  • difficulty with judgment or abstract thinking
  • difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing, or reading
  • disorientation
  • dementia

Localized symptoms of cerebral atrophy

If cerebral atrophy arises from a loss of brain cells in a specific area of the brain, you may have localized symptoms, including:

When to call 911

Cerebral atrophy can be dangerous when it occurs suddenly or progresses rapidly, such as from an injury. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any of these symptoms:

  • being a danger to yourself or others, including behaving in a way that is threatening, irrational, or suicidal
  • a change in the level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out
  • sudden behavioral changes, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations, and delusions
  • seizures
  • a sudden change in your vision, a loss of vision, or eye pain
  • stroke symptoms, including sudden weakness on one side of the body or slurred speech

What causes the brain to atrophy?

Some amount of brain atrophy happens as a normal result of aging. However, the brain shrinkage that is due to normal aging does not cause severe symptoms.

Severe cases of cerebral atrophy are due to disease, injury, or infection.

Injuries

Brain cells may die as a result of an injury, including from:

  • a stroke
  • a traumatic brain injury
  • alcohol use disorder
  • substance misuse

Learn about how drugs and alcohol affect the brain here.

Health conditions

Health conditions that involve brain atrophy include:

Infections

Infectious causes of brain atrophy include:

Research into the exact impact of COVID-19 on the brain is ongoing. However, a recent study suggests that severe COVID-19 accelerates brain atrophy, especially in areas of the brain involved in the sense of smell.

What are the risk factors for cerebral atrophy?

Risk factors for cerebral atrophy include:

  • advancing age
  • a brain injury
  • Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and other neurological disorders
  • certain autoimmune conditions, such as MS
  • a family history of any of the above conditions
  • head injuries
  • vascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes

There is not an exact age at which brain atrophy usually occurs. Instead, it will depend on a person’s overall health and any conditions that contribute to brain atrophy. For instance, you could experience a traumatic brain injury at any age or develop an autoimmune condition in your 20s or 30s. 

Your brain reaches its complete size in your 40s and starts to decline after that. Again, however, a typical rate of brain atrophy is not usually dangerous unless there is another disease or condition increasing it. 

Reducing your risk of cerebral atrophy

Although cerebral atrophy is not necessarily preventable, leading a healthy lifestyle may help slow the progression of atrophy and reduce the severity of the symptoms.

Healthy lifestyle factors that may reduce your risk of severe cerebral atrophy include:

  • managing your blood pressure
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • staying mentally, physically, and socially active

How do doctors diagnose cerebral atrophy?

The first step in diagnosing brain atrophy is to visit a doctor to discuss the symptoms. It can be helpful to keep a journal of the symptoms, including when they first occurred, when they tend to happen, and what seems to make them better or worse. 

Your primary doctor may do some preliminary testing, such as reflex tests or memory tests, before referring you to a neurologist for more advanced testing to confirm a diagnosis. A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in the nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. 

A neurologist can do more tests and order imaging of the brain, such as an MRI scan. These images can measure specific areas of the brain and look for signs of atrophy relative to what is expected in a person of the same age. 

Find out what white spots on a brain MRI scan mean here.

How do doctors treat cerebral atrophy?

There is currently no cure for cerebral atrophy. Once the brain cells have been lost, they do not come back. Instead, treatment focuses on treating the symptoms and complications of cerebral atrophy. Treating the underlying infection, disease, or injury can help prevent further atrophy.

Treatment for dementia and loss-of-function symptoms of cerebral atrophy

Treatments for dementia and loss-of-function symptoms of cerebral atrophy include:

  • medications that change the amount of chemicals that control brain signaling or treat symptoms of cognitive impairment
  • physical therapy to improve your function and ability to perform daily activities
  • psychological counseling and support

Treatment for other symptoms of cerebral atrophy

Other symptoms of cerebral atrophy may require medications and therapies, including:

  • anticonvulsive medications for seizures
  • cognitive or behavioral therapy
  • speech therapy
  • occupational therapy

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help people cope with the effects of cerebral atrophy. These remedies are used alongside traditional medical treatments. They are not meant as a substitute for full medical care.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • acupuncture
  • massage therapy
  • nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
  • yoga

What can you do to improve your brain health?

You may be able to slow the rate of brain shrinkage by managing the known risk factors for brain atrophy, such as high blood pressure and autoimmune conditions. This may involve taking medications, and it always includes leading an active, healthy lifestyle.

Specific strategies include:

  • engaging in regular exercise as much as you are able
  • increasing your mental activity by doing crossword puzzles and reading, for example
  • eating a balanced diet

Eating the right foods can be especially important for brain health. Below are some foods to incorporate into your diet and some foods to avoid with brain atrophy.

Foods that heal the brain

The brain needs a balance of all three macronutrients — fat, carbohydrates, and protein — to function properly.

There are also specific micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that may help minimize the effects of brain degeneration, according to one 2021 review. These include:

  • B vitamins, which are present in fish, milk, poultry, eggs, dairy, and animal meat
  • flavonoids, which are present in fruits, vegetables, and cocoa 
  • long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are present in fish and can be converted from plant sources such as edamame, chia and flax seeds, walnuts, and beans

The study also mentioned that the following foods might be helpful in improving brain function:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • dark chocolate
  • fish
  • Brazil nuts
  • green tea

Learn more about foods that boost your brainpower here.

Foods that harm the brain

The 2021 review also noted that many foods in the Western diet have a direct correlation with damage to certain processes that could impact brain function.

Specific foods that could contribute to brain atrophy include:

  • refined, processed foods
  • saturated fat
  • trans fats
  • sugars
  • excess alcohol

What are the potential complications of cerebral atrophy?

Some possible complications of brain atrophy include:

  • an inability to participate in activities
  • a loss of independence
  • withdrawal
  • depression

Outlook

You cannot recover brain tissue that has atrophied. Once the brain cells have been lost, they will not grow back.

However, the brain is powerful, and some people can learn to live with and adapt to reduced brain function. Also, if something like an injury has caused atrophy, physical and occupational therapy can help the brain form new nerve pathways. This process is called neuroplasticity.

Ultimately, a person’s exact outlook with brain atrophy depends on the cause of the atrophy. Progressive neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, will worsen brain atrophy over time. With other conditions, such as MS, medications and therapies may be able to slow atrophy and help manage the symptoms. 

Summary

Cerebral atrophy refers to a loss of specialized cells in the brain called neurons. Brain atrophy occurs slowly with time, starting at around 40 years of age. Conditions that increase the rate of atrophy include certain infections, stroke and other brain injuries, and degenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The symptoms of brain atrophy are numerous but include memory loss, a loss of coordination and balance, and difficulty with speaking or reading.

Reversing or preventing brain atrophy is not possible, but you may be able to slow its rate by leading a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating nutritious foods, being physically active, and managing conditions that increase the likelihood of brain atrophy, such as high blood pressure.

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 18
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