Long Life and Health
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What Is Cognitive Reserve and How to Develop It?

As you get older, your brain ages with you. Your risk of developing dementia increases the older you get. Currently, about 10% of Americans over 65 will develop the disease. 

Although several things can help slow the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s, scientists are looking more at cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to resist dementia and the early signs of dementia longer – even when the conditions are present for it. 

People with cognitive reserve help their brains adapt to internal changes by re-routing brain signals or growing new connections when old ones no longer work. Adaptation occurs when there are more neurons present, you have a higher intelligence level, more experiences in life, and your job requires considerable mental work.

The term cognitive reserve was developed in the 1980s when autopsies found human brains with all the conditions for dementia, but the person had no symptoms while still living. Further investigation revealed that keeping the brain active with stimulating activities reduced the risk of cognitive impairment by 30 to 50 percent. 

The evidence points to a difference in some people being able to avoid the problems of dementia much longer – even when the same amount of brain damage occurs from the plaques that cause it. Cognitive reserve appears to be what enables the difference. 

Studies have taken place that reveal that occupations that demand a lot of regular brain activity – such as in professional or managerial positions, working with data, etc., enable these people to develop more cognitive reserve than others. Social engagement also plays a strong factor in the development of cognitive reserve. 

Another thing that helps to develop cognitive reserve, especially in children, is learning self-discipline. The ability to resist emotions and pursue tasks to completion also helps to overcome obstacles and develop more neurons and connections in the brain. The ability to persevere and motivate themselves also helps. 

Many activities can help you develop a greater cognitive reserve. They include solving crossword puzzles, playing games such as chess, taking college courses, learning a new language, reading, or learning a new hobby.

Regular exercise is also essential to maintaining cognitive fitness, with a recommended amount of 150 minutes per week. To get the desired results, physical and mental exercise must also be combined with eating right, getting enough sleep, keeping stress under control, and maintaining close social relations. 

The opposite of some of these factors tends to promote a reduction of your cognitive reserve, making you more susceptible to developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease sooner. The things that reduce your cognitive reserve include substance abuse, poor sleep habits, poor health, not getting the necessary nutrition, and depression and anxiety. Loneliness can also reduce cognitive reserve.  

It is not enough merely to do the same things all the time. It seems the brain prefers varying the activities and challenges, just like athletes will vary their exercise program. To do this, you might try strengthening your weaknesses, using your non-dominant hand more, getting a new hobby, and more. 

Taking the above steps to develop a higher degree of cognitive reserve will not completely prevent dementia but could slow it down. At some point, you may cross the threshold where brain damage defeats your cognitive reserve – but the reserve element will help you enjoy life longer and increase your longevity.

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