Cognitive Reserve: What it is, Aging, Alzheimer’s and How To Improve It

We often talk about cognitive reserve when referring to someone who takes care of their brain health, who has the ability to decrease cognitive decline that appears naturally with age, or when talking about Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. Due to cognitive reserve and the brain’s ability to regenerate neural connections, people with a greater cognitive reserve are better able to recover after suffering from brain damage or neurodegeneration.

Luckily, it can be improved with brain games and exercises and living a healthy lifestyle. Read below to find out what cognitive reserve is, how it can be measured and improved, and how it’s related to Alzheimer’s and aging.

Cognitive reserve
Cognitive reserve

As we age, our neurons naturally deteriorate, causing nearby cells to atrophy and die. Our cognitive reserve, along with the help of neuroplasticity, allows us to compensate and either slow or stop this cognitive decline that we face as we age.

People with a better cognitive reserve will experience the symptoms of cognitive decline later than those with less cognitive reserve. For example, if two people suffered the same brain injury, the person with better cognitive reserve would have fewer symptoms of cognitive decline and be more lucid.

Cognitive Decline: What is it?

Cognitive reserve is our brain’s ability to face different types of damage, deterioration, or illness, and maintain cognitive function.

The idea that humans had a type of “cognitive reserve” was first talked about when trying to figure out why two people with the same age and brain injury presented different symptoms.

To get a better idea, let’s take a look at one example. Two 80-year-old women have the same brain injury, but one is presenting more advanced signs of deterioration, while the other is not. After the two women passed away and an autopsy was performed, doctors discovered that both women had Alzheimer’s disease. So, why did one women present signs of cognitive deterioration and the other didn’t? The answer is a cognitive reserve. Even though both women had Alzheimer’s, one woman had a more cognitive reserve which helped her compensate for the cognitive decline.

Our cognitive reserve starts accumulating in our first few days of life. According to neurobiologist Wolf Singer, external environmental influences are what help our brains create connections during the developmental period of our lives, and pediatric neurobiologist Harry Chugani agrees that childhood experiences greatly influence some characteristics, like intelligence or personality traits.

Even though many of these traits are determined in early childhood, it’s important to keep in mind that anyone can stimulate their brain and improve it. Our brain is “plastic”, and has the ability to grow and improve over time, meaning that it is able to improve weak neural connections that may be due to aging or brain damage.

So, now the question you should be asking yourself- is there some way for us to see how much cognitive reserve we have? Yes. We can stimulate and measure our cognitive reserve with scientifically validated neuropsychological assessments. Not only do these assessments help us understand how well our cognitive functions are working, but they also help us identify any markers of certain types of diseases.

Factors that influence cognitive reserve

There are a few different factors that affect cognitive reserve, like brain volume and neural connections.

In general, the most important factor to having a good cognitive reserve is exercising your brain. According to a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, keeping the brain active as you age will help you age better.

In the last few years, more and more studies have been conducted about the factors that influence cognitive reserve, like genetic factors, innate abilities, physical activity, education, socio-economic factors, etc. Among the most important factors related to cognitive reserve are the following:

  • IQ, education, education: IQ can depend on genetic, education, and cultural factors. It’s been shown that those with a higher IQ have a bigger cognitive reserve and brain size. According to different studies, being better educated protects against mild brain damage or mild cognitive impairment. It’s been shown that low education level is one of the risk factors associated with dementia. This may be because more educated people generally live a healthier life, which helps connections between neurons, which keeps them active and decreases the probability of suffering from dementia.

It’s also been proven that people whose careers require them to reason or work with math or language are less likely to have dementia. Of course, career choice and education are often related to socioeconomic level, which leads to the question of how socioeconomic level influences cognitive reserve.

  • Leisure and social activities: It’s been shown that seniors who do some kind of active activity and spend time with others have a 38% less chance of suffering from dementia, which is why so often people recommend that you spend some time in nature, meet new people, try new activities, etc. When you interact and spend time with other people, your brain has to use a variety of resources in order to be able to follow the conversation and be sociable, which helps cognitive reserve.
  • Physical exercise: It’s been proven that the more physical exercise you do, the less likely you are to have dementia as you age. Exercise protects the deterioration associated with aging and dementia, lessens risk factors like oxidant stress, and increases the production of neurons and neuroplasticity. Exercise helps our bodies in a number of ways, and one is blood flow. When we work out, our blood circulates through the body more easily, which can decrease the possibility of suffering some cardiovascular problems. Need some help getting started? Read these tips for how to start working out.
  • Mental exercise: Things like reading, playing instruments, learning a language, or trying something that you’ve never done before helps us keep our brain active and in shape. Working out brain can help boost cognitive reserve and delay symptoms of cognitive deterioration. Think that you’re too old to learn a language? You’re not! Doing any of these activities can help your cognitive reserve, regardless of your age. There are some cognitive stimulation programs available to help you improve cognitive reserve, like CogniFit, leader in neurocognitive assessments.

Nutrition is also a big part of brain health, so be sure you get your body the nutrients it needs. Try to do some exercise, eat well, quit smoking, and drink in moderation (need help quitting smoking? Read these stop smoking tips).

Cognitive Reserve and Aging

Many studies argue that cognitive reserve may be an important factor in the fight against cognitive aging and neurodegenerative diseases related to aging.

Cognitive reserve and aging: Learning new things help us stimulate and strengthen our brains, as well as improve cognitive reserve. Delaying cognitive decline caused by aging can help slow, and even prevent dementia. Keep reading below for some tips on how to improve cognitive reserve.

Cognitive Reserve and Alzheimer’s Disease

Why do some people notice Alzheimer’s symptoms later than others? As we mentioned earlier, cognitive reserve plays a fundamental role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Cognitive reserve helps delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, causing the cognitive symptoms to appear later, to a lesser degree, or even preventing the symptoms altogether.

According to Stern (Director of the Sergievsky Center Divsion Cognitive Neuroscience and the Taub Institute): “Epidemiologic evidence suggests that individuals with higher IQ, education, occupational attainment, or participation in leisure activities have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer disease (AD)”

While in the last few years studying it has become more popular, it has actually been studied for quite a while. In fact, it’s almost impossible to talk about cognitive reserve without mentioning David Snowdon (Doctor of Epidemiology and professor of Neurology at the University of Kentucky).

David Snowdon conducted a study in 1986 with 678 nuns in the United States. He hoped to determine if cognitive reserve played some role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

He decided to use nuns because he wanted to be able to observe a homogenous group of people who had similar lifestyles and habits. Over 17 years, Snowdon asked the nuns to take cognitive tests, psychological exams, genetic tests and requested that they donate their brains to science after their passing so he would be able to see if there was a relation between Alzheimer’s and cognitive reserve.

Interestingly enough, he found out that Sister Bernadette, who died of a heart attack at the age of 85, had advanced Alzheimer’s disease despite not having shown any signs. How it is possible that her brain showed that she had Alzheimer’s if she never showed any symptoms?

Snowdon later discovered, with the help of Jim Mortimer (Director of Geriatric Investigation at a medical center in Minneapolis), that Bernadette’s brain had somehow self-compensated for the disease, making her disease imperceptible.

The team compared all of the tests and even studied the nun’s auto biographies that each woman had written before entering the order (with the help of Susan Kemper, psycholinguist, to analyze the language). These autobiographies allowed the two researchers to observe the monosyllable and multi-syllable words they used, the frequency with which they use uncommon words, complex grammatical structure, etc.

In this analysis, they saw that those who had a richer vocabulary were, in general, part of the healthy group and that they enjoyed reading in their youth (which helps build cognitive reserve).

Once all of the results were analyzed, Snowdon saw how an Alzheimer’s brain with good cognitive reserve won’t show the symptoms of the disease. Cognitive reserve may help in the formation of new neural connections between the neurons damaged by Alzheimer’s. The study also determined that “Alzheimer’s isn’t a disease that you either have or not. It’s a complex process that develops over decades and is affected by a number of biological, intellectual, emotional, social, and cultural factors, along with many others.” According to the study, Alzheimer’s could be considered a disease that develops over time and as a consequence of a number of experiences.

Snowdon’s findings, along with his contemporaries, believe that activities that can stimulate and exercise the brain and cognitive functions can help keep the brain healthy and free from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Is it possible to improve cognitive reserve?

As we mentioned earlier, there are certain factors that influence cognitive reserve. Living a healthy lifestyle and keeping a balanced diet can help us improve our cognitive reserve and brain health.

Training your brain is vitally important, and we’re lucky to have a number of different activities available to us to keep our brains sharp, like reading, going to the movies or theater, seeing friends, dancing…All of these activities use cognitive resources, and by using cognitive resources, we’re able to train and improve them.

There are currently special technologies available that help you improve cognitive reserve. CogniFit is the platform leader in neurocognitive assessments and brain games. It is available online and can be done by almost anyone! CogniFit is a non-pharmaceutical way to help delay or even prevent Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. CogniFit is scientifically validated, and its studies are based on neuroplasticity.

What do you to improve your cognitive reserve? Leave your comments and questions below! 🙂

This post was originally written in Spanish by Mairena Vazquez, psychologist.

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