What is cognitive reserve? What is the origin of cognitive reserve? With good cognitive reserve, the brain is able to create new connections between neurons, replacing those that may be damaged or damaged.
Did you know? The brain is a muscle and, like all muscles, if you do not exercise it, it atrophies.
As we age, our body and mind inevitably undergo changes, including the loss or deterioration of certain abilities, such as physical strength or visual acuity. The brain is no stranger to this process and functions such as memory and attention span also decrease and can even suffer accidents or diseases that compromise their functioning (stroke, trauma, Alzheimer’s disease …). However, not everyone will suffer the consequences in the same way: while some will have significant problems, others will suffer fewer losses in the face of these difficulties and will have greater resistance. This resistance is determined by what is called cognitive reserve.
The cognitive reserve begins to form from the same moment that the brain begins to develop in the uterus. This reserve begins in childhood but can be increased throughout life.
We know that the experiences of the first years of life are decisive. These largely define the course of the process of developing intelligence.
There is a reason to believe that the genetic factor influences the formation of a cognitive reserve. However, this aspect is not definitive. There are ways to stimulate the brain to increase this ability throughout life. In fact, it can be increased even in a damaged brain.
Throughout our lives, we gain knowledge about the world around us. It’s an ongoing process that will allow us to adapt to a changing world. Our brain is made up of millions of cells called neurons. They have the ability to connect to each other and these connections develop and change as we gain knowledge. It can be said that learning changes the shape of our brain, makes it more complex, increasing the quality and complexity of “cerebral cabling” and as a result, the brain becomes more resistant to adverse situations such as the development of brain disease Alzheimer’s or brain damage.
Intellectual, recreational and sports activities have been shown to be effective in increasing the cognitive reserve. Reading, mind games, language learning, dance, sports, and all intellectually stimulating activities contribute to this capacity.
II – What Is Cognitive Reserve?
The cognitive reserve is the ability of our brain to cope with the various attacks it can undergo – the loss of cerebral capacities or negative transformations in this organ -.
Performing activities that exercise our cognitive abilities – such as those involving reading or calculating – can usually protect us from aging and dementia, by increasing the plasticity of our brain and by establishing new synaptic connections when others deteriorate.
The accumulation of experience and the stimulation of mental abilities throughout life are reflected in the cognitive reserve. It is like mental capital that, the bigger it is, the more it will help to compensate for the effects on the effectiveness of our cognitive abilities, both of aging or alterations of the brain, as well as those caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
The cognitive reserve does not serve as an antidote to prevent brain diseases or neuronal aging, but it is a factor that helps to delay the possible cognitive deterioration, by favoring a more resistant neural network.
In some cases, high cognitive reserve allows the brain to function normally after an illness. This also allows this operation to remain fully active, even in case of natural deterioration due to aging. It is a very important capacity that deserves to be cultivated and maintained.
III – Cognitive Reserve: The Study of the Nuns
One of the references in cognitive reserve research is a well-known experiment by neurologist David Snowdon of the University of Kentucky in 1986, which he called “the study of nuns”. The experiment consisted in studying a group of nuns in a convent and observing the evolution of their cognitive functions, such as memory.
It took as a research group 678 Catholic nuns of the order of School Sisters of Our Lady, a community where the average age is 85 years and where many sisters are over 90 years. It was a very uniform group.
Their cognitive reserve has been monitored for 17 years. During this period, they have been tested regularly, genetically, intellectually or psychologically. All accepted the fact that, when they died, their brains would be studied to complete the information of the experiment.
The most surprising was the case of Sister Bernadette. This nun died at 85 years old. Her brain was studied and it was detected that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. However, never in her life had she shown symptoms of suffering. The researchers concluded that the nun’s cognitive reserve clearly compensated for her deficiencies.
The researchers managed to verify another interesting fact. Nuns with a richer vocabulary have shown a less cognitive decline over the years. And this vocabulary, in turn, comes from the fact that they had been good readers during their childhood. This experience is one of the most convincing proofs for intellectual, social, and physical exercise as a valid means of delaying the natural decline of our cognitive functions.
The most important finding of the nuns’ study was that Alzheimer’s disease is not an inevitable consequence of old age. On the contrary, the existence of a strong cognitive reserve protects against such a devastating disease.
In these nuns who lead a healthy life, have a good diet and little stress, the rate of Alzheimer’s disease is significantly lower than that of the general population. Significantly, many of them are highly educated and have very demanding intellectual activities for their age.
Over the years of research, it has been observed that the same brain injury does not always have the same impact. Many therapies applied in patients with Alzheimer’s disease are based on the plasticity of the brain and that one can take advantage of intellectual activity even at a very advanced age or when it is damaged.
As a result of this study, further research has led to the hypothesis that performing intellectually demanding activities may mitigate the effects of brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease and turn, brain plasticity.
IV – Factors Influencing the Cognitive Reserve
When you have a good cognitive reserve, the brain can establish new connections between neurons to replace those that can be damaged or damaged. This process is much easier for those who have already done some of these activities or who have one of these characteristics.
*** Higher Cultural Level
By cultural level, we mean all studies, readings and intellectual-type activities accumulated. A higher level protects the brain from mild cognitive impairment, that is, what is produced by age.
*** Social Relations
There is evidence that those with the support of a good social circle, with whom they interact frequently, are 38% less likely to suffer from dementia.
*** Physical Exercise
It promotes blood circulation in the brain, protects against oxidative stress and other deterioration factors associated with aging.
*** Mental Exercise
It is definitive to increase cognitive reserve. This includes activities such as playing a musical instrument, practicing intellectual hobbies, etc.
*** A Healthy Diet Also Helps Strengthen the Brain
The consumption of tobacco, alcohol or other psychoactive substances should be avoided. The walks, hikes, and excursions are also part of the favorable factors.
V – Daily Activities to Increase the Cognitive Reserve
There are no activities or exercises specifically recommended to avoid or reduce the risk of developing dementia, but there is a series of highly recommended practices for keeping the brain active and promoting cognitive reserve. In general, we must try to open ourselves up to new activities for ourselves or to pose daily small challenges that force us to make a mental effort.
It is advisable to choose activities that interest us and avoid those that do not interest us or that seem boring. If we have fun, we will give them time and it will be less possible for us to abandon them. We must choose them varied to stimulate different cognitive abilities. We need to keep in mind that the brain and cognitive functions work in a network, and therefore, to improve a given function, we need to work together. For example, to improve memory, it is also necessary to stimulate the attention or the capacities of perception.
This is one of the most recognized activities to promote cognitive stimulation. In addition to providing us with knowledge, reading is an excellent activity to promote concentration, exercise memory and nurture the imagination.
*** To Play
In addition to being a perfect excuse to have fun with family or friends, board games are a good tool for developing different cognitive skills. Thus, depending on the characteristics of the game, calculations, recent memory, logic, planning ability, vocabulary or creativity, among other abilities, will be stimulated.
Learning new things at any age will promote our cognitive activity. Learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, attending classes or lectures on general culture or perfecting our cooking skills are some examples.
*** Put Yourself to the Test
Every day we can challenge our brains. Something that requires a little effort, like solving crossword puzzles, doing sudoku or making a puzzle. However, we must keep in mind that activities that are too simple or, on the contrary, in which we are already great experts and that we can solve mechanically, will not serve us much in terms of cognitive stimulation, although perhaps to be we would like to keep them because we find it enjoyable. Remember, however, always leave room for a variety of activities.
*** Change the Routines
Adding new day-to-day routines or changing habits helps create new neural connections. For example, choose another route to get to work, change the organization of the drawers or use cutlery with the opposite hand.
*** For the Human Being, It’s Never Too Late to Learn
Although childhood is the time when our brain is able to absorb more information, the truth is that we can continue to increase our abilities. The volume of our cognitive reserve is not constant and much of the value of its dimensions will be conditioned from an early age, in order to continue to shape it over the years.
Learning is a tool that can strengthen our brain and make it more resistant to dementia. The cognitive reserve is not always constant; Care must be taken in exercising the mind. It’s a process that stays constant throughout the life cycle. Such an extraordinary condition invites to keep the mind active and thus promote good brain function.
*** Reading Stimulates the Brain and Increases the Cognitive Reserve
Reading stimulates brain activity because it forces the brain to order and correlate ideas and concepts, to exercise memory and imagination, thereby enhancing intellectual capacity.
Dementias, characterized by a progressive and persistent deterioration of the higher functions of the brain, such as memory, language, calculation, spatial perception, etc., are the neurological diseases most associated with the cognitive reserve. They are expected to significantly increase their incidence in the coming years due to the aging of the population.
Consequently, any measure aimed at delaying or preventing the onset of these pathologies will contribute to improving the quality of life of the population and will facilitate the care of the people concerned. In this regard, experts recommend reading because it is an activity that stimulates brain activity.
In addition to this protective effect, reading offers other health benefits, as it helps to control stress, which leads to other conditions such as headaches or sleep disorders. Specialists encourage reading at any age, although they emphasize that this is especially important for children and the elderly. In first because it is necessary to instill this habit during childhood, while the brain is still developing; and in the elderly, because reading is an essential stimulus to keep the brain active.
VI – Cognitive Reserve and Cerebral Reserve
In the human brain, there are two types of reserves that promote its proper functioning and allow us to develop on a daily basis: the cognitive reserve and the cerebral reserve.
Brain reserve refers to the cognitive reserve capabilities derived from the structure and / or physiological composition of our brain. These are individual differences in the human brain itself that allow some people to recover better from various cognitive (Alzheimer’s and other) and brain (stroke, etc.) pathologies.
The brain reserve is of a quantitative nature and it has been suggested that features such as the size of the brain itself (intracranial volume), a larger number of myelinated neurons, a larger number of synapses and larger pyramidal neurons imply a protective factor against the cognitive decline of age and various pathologies related to it. In the same way, lived experiences can influence the neuroanatomy of the human brain, thus contributing to neurogenesis and angiogenesis, enhancing brain resistance to neuronal death and regulating neuronal plasticity.
Cognitive reserve refers to functional improvement and has been associated with a wide variety of intellectual, social and physical factors that affect an individual’s daily life throughout their life cycle. This concept is related to the way individuals manage information from their environment and process it for the accomplishment of a task.
Brain reserve and cognitive reserve can be generated if we adopt cardio-healthy habits and use our brain and cognitive abilities properly. And the more we have reserves, the more we have the ability to delay, or even avoid, the significant decrease in our cognitive abilities due to age and neurodegenerative diseases.
It is believed that an individual with higher levels of brain reserve and the cognitive reserve is more likely to maintain effective and independent performance in normal settings.
Cognitive impairment occurs when the total volume of the brain falls below a critical threshold, that is, people with higher brain volume can better withstand the burden of the disease – cerebral atrophy – before to reach the threshold and present the signs of clinical symptoms. Older people with higher brain volume have a lower risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.
VII – Effect of Cognitive Reserve
All of these factors could promote the efficiency of neural networks and compensation through alternative neural networks. In this way, we protect ourselves against the alterations suffered in the brain functions, which are most often injured in accidents.
In addition to protecting us from various diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, slowing its progression or even delaying its onset, learning is also beneficial for recovery from a traumatic brain injury caused by an accident.
Despite the risk of developing dementia in the elderly, science has opened the door to a possible preventive solution, which may make us less vulnerable to diseases that appear more frequently as we get older.
Just as physical activity is good for our body; the cognitive reserve is acquired through brain training, as well as through activities involving mental and intellectual effort. Your brain and your mind will greatly appreciate it.