Building a "Cognitive Reserve" May Help Keep Dementia at Bay

Much of what we hear about the brain's decline with age seems fatalistic and unavoidable: Nerve cells die and portions of the brain shrink, causing loss of memory and problems with other thinking functions. However, researchers looking into cognitive decline and dementia have made encouraging findings.

While it was believed that the adult brain could not develop new neurons (or brain cells), scientists have learned in the past decade or so that the human brain is pliable and adaptive. The brain can actually add new neurons even late in life and continually form new connections among existing neurons—a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.

This means that while an aging brain may have signs of damage, it can often compensate for them—at least initially. And engaging in mentally stimulating activities like reading, taking a class, or playing board games is one way to bolster this process.

Building a Cognitive Reserve

This compensation process depends on your "cognitive reserve," the extra, perhaps unused, amount of cognitive ability that can make up for the loss of brain functioning when your brain shows signs of dementia due to the death of cells and their replacement by beta-amyloid plaques. Genetics, early childhood stimulation, and education level can influence cognitive reserve but are essentially immutable once you're an adult.

Fortunately, studies have found that you can also increase your cognitive reserve and delay the onset of dementia through a variety of intellectually stimulating leisure activities in middle and later life.

A 2009 study in the journal Neurology, for example, found that among 101 people who eventually developed dementia, those who frequently participated in one or more activities including reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing card or board games, having group discussions, or playing music experienced memory decline more than one year later than those who participated in these activities less often. These pursuits built cognitive reserve and delayed dementia as much as a higher education level did.

Turn Off the TV

It's worth noting that researchers have discovered that watching television is a passive activity that doesn't really stimulate your mind at all; on the contrary, watching television is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline.

A 2006 study found that TV watchers were 10 percent more likely than non-watchers to experience cognitive impairments over a five-year period. A possible explanation: Time spent in front of the TV means less time for the mental, social, and physical activities that can help delay dementia.

So put down the remote and try a few of the activities mentioned above. They'll not only help preserve brain functioning but also improve your quality of life.

Publication Review By: Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H.

Published: 16 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 01 Dec 2014