Why You Need A Cognitive Reserve (and how to build one)

August 4, 2009 at 4:28 pm Leave a comment

If you  play brain-games or read many news articles about Alzheimer’s prevention, you’ve probably heard the term “cognitive reserve”, and you’ve likely gotten the vague idea that it’s supposed to help prevent or minimize the effects of age-related mental losses.   But what is a cognitive reserve, why would you want one, and how do you get one?

Dallas Highways - Image by Dhaake on Stock.XchngIf you think “cognitive reserve” sounds a bit like a savings account for the brain, you’ve got the right idea!  But before we explore that analogy, let’s look at another one:  building a cognitive reserve is like building access roads for the brain – more access “roads” than you may currently “need” for normal healthy brain function, but roads that may come in handy in the future.

Here’s how it works:

Your mental abilities and memories rely on a complex network of neurons, pathways that connect different parts of the brain.

That’s where the “access roads” analogy comes in –   the more streets there are in  a city, and the more off and on ramps there are on the highways, the easier it is to get around between different parts of the city, the less likely you are to get stuck in a traffic jam, and the easier it is to find your way around a blocked road or washed out bridge.

Likewise, the more complex your neural network is, the more effective your cognitive abilities are, the more complex and easy to recall your memories can be.

And the less “traffic” is on any particular part of the network, the faster your reactions can be.

How does this relate to Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia, and even ordinary age-related declines cause problems by damaging, destroying and weakening the pathways in the neural network.

It’s like bridges being washed out in the city, or as if huge potholes develop in some of the off ramps, so that traffic to certain parts of the city slows down, snarls, or is blocked altogether.  But if there are enough alternate routes in the city, traffic will find a way around the damaged streets, and everything runs smoothly, in spite of the damage.

And your brain works the same way.   If some of the neural pathways are damaged, the brain can find routes around them, assuming that alternate pathways exist so they can be used.

That’s where the idea of a “reserve” comes into play.  If we build a more complex neural network than we may actually need for a  normally comfortable life,  our brain will be better equipped to handle damage from injury or disease, because it can use those extra “roadways” to route around them.

To go back to the banking analogy, it’s like building up a savings account in case of rainy days or retirement –  except you’re building up brain cells and neural pathways to compensate for potential losses or disease.

How do you build up this reserve?

By keeping your brain exercised and active, throughout your life.   Learning in your early years can certainly help, but learning in your later years may help even more.  Tackling varied, challenging and novel tasks encourages the brain to produce new neural networks, and strengthen existing ones.

The keys to building a cognitive reserve are novel, ongoing, and challenging tasks; once a new hobby or interest becomes second nature, it won’t do you as much good – so when a task becomes rote or easy, it’s time to ramp up the difficulty! That’s why brain training systems are so often recommended – the best of the systems automatically adjust to challenge their users, adjust the difficulty to their performance and present novel, new activities.

A few final words:

The idea of a cognitive reserve is still a hypothesis, meaning it’s not yet proven. Still, it’s gained pretty wide acceptance among neuroscientists.   Evidence for it is found in the brains of seniors who showed no signs of declining cognitive functions even at very advanced ages… yet when their brains were examined after death, they revealed sometimes advanced damage normally associated with Alzheimer’s disease.  These people have typically been very mentally active throughout their lives.

Additionally, people with higher education and more mentally active lifestyles tend not to develop systems of dementia as often.. and when they do, it’s later in life, and often less severe.

That said, it’s a pretty good bet that the idea of building a cognitive reserve  as a means of protecting cognitive function will hold up with time…  or that a  similar concept built around building brain-power will eventually take it’s place.

So whether you view it as a brain cell bank account, or a mix-master system of access roads…  get out there, and start building those reserves!

Entry filed under: Be Mentally Active. Tags: , , , .

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About This Blog


A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • A Sense of Purpose & Connection
Authored by Tori Deaux
Sponsored by Dakim Brain Fitness

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