How to Build your Cognitive Reserve
Train your Brain!
Thanks to public health campaigns, we all know that a healthy diet and daily exercise can maintain our body fit and reduce the risk of heart disease. What about our brain and dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease?
Like heart disease—and most human traits—Alzheimer’s is highly heritable. However, non-shared environmental factors also influence cognitive health. For instance, more education and cognitively complex occupation predict higher cognitive abilities in old age.
Autopsies also revealed that many people die with Alzheimer’s disease in their brain, although in life their cognition wasn’t impaired. Neuroscientists coined the term “cognitive reserve” to understand this phenomenon. It’s a hypothetical construct: the idea that brains with a higher neuroplasticity level can continue to work normally despite extensive brain damage.
So can you train your brain and strengthen your cognitive reserve as you train your body and muscles? It seems so! According to the UK National Health Service, it may be possible to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease by:
Playing musical instruments
Volunteering in your local community
Taking part in group sports, such as bowling
Trying new activities or hobbies
Maintaining an active social life
But not all intellectual activities are equal. For instance, reading books decreases the odds of having dementia but reading magazines and newspapers doesn’t! So your information diet is probably as important as your “regular” diet. Other tasks associated with reduced risk of dementia include computer activities, craft activities (knitting, quilting…), playing games, and… traveling! Probably because when you travel, you break your routine, and this forces your brain to establish new connections. (I wonder if habits, in general, are bad for our brain in the long run and whether we should embrace randomness instead, but that’s another question...)
This also suggests that only intellectually challenging tasks may delay the onset of dementia. Sudoku and crosswords are probably not enough…
Last, what is good for the heart is also good for the brain, particularly a healthy diet and regular physical activity. I hope that doctors and health authorities will also prescribe a healthy information diet and regular intellectual exercise to their patients! Mens sana in corpore sano…
What do you think? Join the discussion!