If you’ve ever spent time with someone who has developed Alzheimer’s or dementia, you know how heartbreaking it can be to watch them slowly decline. Neurodegenerative diseases slowly take away everything that makes our loved ones “themselves,” including a reduction in cognitive function.
Cognition is the “mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses,” or rather, the way your brain experiences new stimuli and uses it to understand how the world works. It’s not that you know or remember that two plus two equals four, but how to find that answer if you forget.
Keeping up your cognitive function through regular brain puzzles, diet, exercise and avoiding smoking is the best way to ensure that you have a “cognitive reserve” ready as you age, thus ensuring your brain stays sharp well into your 80s and 90s.
What is a cognitive reserve?
Cognitive reserve is the idea that some people can retain normal brain function, even in the face of brain damage or degenerative diseases. It helps explain why some elderly patients are still able to function properly despite age-related atrophy and decline, or diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Your brain is neuroplastic, meaning that everything you do—from social interactions to solving problems at work to experiencing stress and trauma—helps restructure your brain. The more you actively seek out new experiences and engage your logical, creative and interpersonal functions, the more of a cognitive reserve you’ll have later in life. In other words, looking for alternative solutions to problems, whether expressing yourself in a new language or solving Sudoku puzzles, will help your brain stay healthy as you age.
According to the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, people who have access to “higher education, regular participation in social or mentally stimulating activities, and complexity of occupation increase an individual’s resistance to dementia.” While researchers haven’t come to a consensus about how to measure or otherwise assess cognitive reserve, it seems that people who go through life using their cognitive skills at a higher-than-average rate are better able to fight cognitive decline later in life.
Recent research supports this idea, although studies are not yet extensive enough to draw hard and fast conclusions. Beth E. Snitz, PhD and expert at the University of Pittsburgh says, “This finding is consistent with the theory that people with better lifelong thinking and memory skills have a ‘cognitive reserve’ that provides a buffer of protection against changes in the brain.”
How to increase your cognitive reserve
Now that you know how important it is to have a cognitive reserve, how can you build or increase yours? It’s easier than you might think—and it can be fun, too. No matter how old you are, it’s never too early or too late to train your brain.
The best way to increase your cognitive reserve is to seek out mental stimulation in a variety of forms. Language, math, art, logic, interpersonal and spatial puzzles all engage the brain in different ways. This helps your brain stay resilient and flexible, so it can adapt to new challenges easily.
In other words, you can improve your cognitive reserve by doing anything from taking classes at your local community college to taking up a new hobby like knitting or woodworking. As long as it’s mentally stimulating, you will improve your cognitive reserve every time you engage in the hobby. Even spending a few minutes per day on brain teasers or your chosen activity will help your brain stay sharp.
There’s also a physical element to cognitive reserve, too—studies have shown that there’s a strong link between physical activity and health and your brain health. Patients who avoid smoking cigarettes and engage in regular exercise tend to be more adept at fighting off dementia, and retain good cognitive ability well into their 90s.
If you have young children, they can help build your own cognitive reserve as you help them develop theirs. Thinking of ways to explain concepts like math and reading challenges your brain—but so does answering your three-year-old’s endless string of “why?” questions. Reframing concepts in a way that children can understand is the exact type of mental puzzle that can help your brain stay sharp. It also fosters a love of learning and good cognitive development in your kids.
Keeping our brains in great shape is key, especially as we live longer lives. Building up your cognitive reserve will help you enjoy that longer life.