Can we build back-up brain power?

Nov 7, 2011 by

When we are young we go to school, college or university and learn new skills all the time. During our working lives we are also learning. When we retire it is just as important to keep learning. Why? Medical research shows that lifelong learning has been statistically shown to reduce the likelihood and impact of dementia and associated diseases like Alzheimers..

mental activity to reduce risk of dementia

Keep learning forever

The concept of ‘cognitive reserve’ was first explored in the late eighties by scientists who noticed that not everyone who showed the ‘tangles’ and ‘plaques’ in their brain common to Alzheimer sufferers actually exhibited Alzheimers symptoms. Research went on to develop the theory of ‘brain reserve’ versus ‘cognitive reserve’. Brain reserve is the physical size of your brain and the theory is that those with larger brains were able to develop new neural pathways to compensate for those lost by disease. However, research showed that this was not always true in that some patients showed ‘cognitive resilience’ i.e. their brains were not larger but they were still more resilient to damage.

What this means is that some people have a greater ability to use alternate pathways in the brain than others and that as parts of the brain decline with age or disease other areas are able to take over thus slowing down the impact of dementia and similar conditions. Developing a resilient brain or plenty of ‘cognitive reserve’ is something we can do something about.

How do we increase our cognitive reserve? Cognitive functioning has clearly been linked to IQ, education and adult occupation, however the relationship is not so clear cut when looking at the ability to change, to develop new neural pathways or what we term cognitive resilience. Lifestyle factors also seem to affect our ability to develop cognitive resilience. Research has shown that exposure to more opportunities for physical activity, learning and social interaction on a daily basis can produce structural and functional changes in the brain.

It seems that a whole variety of activities, the more the better all contribute to building our cognitive reserve. Research has shown that simple activities like reading, visiting friends or relatives, going to movies or restaurants, walking for pleasure or going on an excursion all make a significant contribution to our ability to resist cognitive decline. Importantly, physical activity has also been shown to have a positive affect. Scientists have been able to show that physical activity really does promote physical changes in the brain – so exercise is not just about building muscle but building your brain. So yes – you can build back up brain power.

Novelty, variety and challenge in whatever activities we pursue are the effective ingredients for reducing the effects of age. Very importantly it is never too late and the effect is cumulative. Our challenge therefore is to learn or experience something new every day and not only enrich your life but increase it too.

“Individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through education, occupation and leisure activities, have reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies suggest that they have 35–40% less risk of manifesting the disease. The pathology will still occur, but they are able to cope with it better. Some won’t ever be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s because they don’t present any symptoms. In studies that follow healthy elders over time and then get autopsies, up to 20% of peo¬ple who did not present any significant problem in the daily lives have full blown Alzheimer’s pathology in their brains.” Dr Yaakov Stern, PhD, University of Colombia

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