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March 06, 2018

Brain Health: What is Cognitive Reserve?

A crucial component of overall brain health is something called “cognitive reserve,” a function that is the subject of past and ongoing research. 

A Harvard publication defines cognitive reserve as “your brain’s ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done.” The article compares this cognitive function to an extra gear in a car with the power to “suddenly accelerate to avoid an obstacle.” Researchers believe this type of reserve can be developed in people who are lifelong learners, full of curiosity.

What is cognitive reserve?

Researchers initially began discussing cognitive reserve in the late 1980s when autopsies showed symptoms in brains that should indicate advanced Alzheimer’s disease – and yet, when the people being autopsied were still living, they showed no signs of dementia. The conclusion was that this group of people had a “large enough cognitive reserve to offset the damage and continue to function as usual.”

Here, you can find the story of one nun who fit into this category. She was one of 678 nuns who participated in the decades-long Nun Study of brain health in aging people, agreeing to ongoing testing and the donation of her brain after she died. The nun being highlighted, Sister Bernadette, stayed mentally sharp throughout her life; when she died at the age of 85, though, her brain was “riddled with the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s.”

As research continued to take place after the Nun Study, experts found that people with greater reserves can “stave off the degenerative brain changes” associated with a variety of medical issues, including strokes, and help them to manage stressful life events.

In 2009, research indicated there were two types of cognitive reserve: active and passive. Passive reserve is also called brain reserve, and refers to the physical size and number of neurons found within a particular person’s brain. Because the person can’t change either of these factors, this is considered “passive.” Active reserve, meanwhile, is the type of reserve that allows the brain to compensate and otherwise cope with damage in a way that preserves brain health.

According to the author of the 2009 study, Alzheimer’s disease should, all other things being equal, show up later in people with a higher active reserve. He also says it’s reasonable to predict that the incident rate of this disease should be lower in people with higher reserves.

Psychology Today shared the hypothesis of a brain study that is being conducted from 2016-2018 – and that hypothesis states it’s never too late to build cognitive reserve. The study is called Engage and, through the program, participants are involved in formal training programs and leisure activities alike, ranging from learning a second language or playing video games that help with memory and attention. Researchers involved with Engage believe this program will boost brain functioning, including memory and attention, as well as psychosocial wellbeing.

Engage participants all believe they have cognitive challenges, but those challenges are not reflected in testing; in other words, they are all people with subjective cognitive impairment, not those who objectively have impairments. Researchers plan to monitor short-term and long-term effects of the program, and to identify factors that seem to lead to better outcomes. These can include the gender, age or genetic background of participants. If you’d like more information about this currently-running study, here’s a video that addresses the kind of resiliency being studied. We will continue to watch for news about study results – and what that means for brain health in older adults.

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