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This post is by guest blogger Matthew Savage 

Neurodegenerative diseases affect 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 years in the UK. As degeneration is heavily linked with age, it is important that we take care of our cognitive health throughout our lives and research suggests that those with a higher “cognitive reserve” will often be better protected from neurodegeneration. This concept of the cognitive reserve is crucial to understanding our cognitive health. It can be described as the “gearbox of the brain”, allowing you to shift gears or accelerate when needed, calling upon extra resources when we are cognitively challenged (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). This reserve means that certain people who sustain brain damage may be affected more severely than others (Hilary and Grafman, 2017). It also helps us cope with unexpected stress in life, helps us cope with major failures or periods where our cognitive load may be increased.

Cognitive reserve theory

Cognitive reserve theory pertains that different people have different thresholds before pathological symptoms of brain injury, be it traumatic injury, concussion or neurodegeneration, will show symptoms. It is a theory that was developed in the 1980s after individuals with no symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease were seen to have pathological symptoms of the condition when their brains were examined after death. This was observed multiple times, whereby there did not appear to be a direct relationship between the degree of damage in the brain and the clinical manifestation of the damage. Said another way; cognitive decline did not correlate with the degree of biological damage (Ridding, 2017). The theory suggests that this may be due to different levels in cognitive capacity reserves, more efficient use of our brain capacity and the ability to recruit more networks where necessary. This is often affected by our external environment, meaning that we can increase our cognitive capacity throughout the lifetime.

How can we increase our cognitive reserve?

It seems fair to say that we would all like to be more resilient, to boost our cognitive skill and to have a greater capacity to deal with life’s stressors. According to cognitive reserve theory, there are numerous life choices that will help us do just that. Cognitive reserve can be influenced by our education levels, our occupation and the cultural activities we engage in. It can also be affected by our nutrition and our daily habits. The following are some simple day to day choices we can make to try and improve our cognitive reserve:

  • Keep learning and enrich your environment – Just because you are no longer in school does not mean you should stop learning! Our baseline intelligence is one factor in the differences in individual cognitive reserve. Having an engaging occupation or taking part in stimulating activities is key to boosting your reserve. The latter can include activities such as learning a new language, completing crosswords and engaging in pub quizzes. All can help you to increase your reserve. Cultural activities and enrichment of our environment has also been shown to increase synaptogenesis and cognitive function (Sampedro-Piquero and Begega, 2017).

  • Socialise with friends and family – Although limited, research exists supporting the direct link between socialising and cognitive development, it is still vital to remain socially active as we age. Engagement with lots of people from all walks of life enriches our lives, can provide protection from social isolation, anxiety and depression as well as aiding in reducing stress levels. In Alzheimer’s patients, individuals were motivated through another's physical presence leading to improvements in attentional, planning, and decision-making abilities, all vital cognitive functions (Ruthirakuhan et al, 2012).
  • Eat a plant-based diet and exercise regularly – Healthy body healthy mind! As is a common theme to boost our health, a diet high in fruit, vegetables and legumes is great for protecting out brains from cognitive decline. Omega-3s can also boost neurogenesis, helping our brains to regenerate. Physical activity enhances cognitive and brain functions, boosts our mood and protects us against the development of neurodegenerative diseases (Kramer and Erickson, 2007). Poor dietary choices and smoking of tobacco or e-cigarettes have all been linked to cerebrovascular dysfunction, with reduce blood flow and “brain fog”, a mild cognitive impairment, noted as consequences of these habits (Li, 2020).

  • Get plenty of sleep – Get plenty of rest, around 7-8 hours a night. Sleep consolidates and stabilises memories, whilst providing performance recovery for the brain after a day of activity (Scullin and Bliwise, 2015). Sleep also aids in metabolic clearance of neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the central nervous system whilst awake (Xie, 2013), products which can accumulate and lead to neurodegeneration and increased stress levels. Studies have also shown that taking an afternoon nap improves cognitive functioning in middle-aged adults (Scullin and Bliwise, 2015). All of the above functions of sleep can increase our cognitive reserve.

How will you start increasing your cognitive reserve today?

About Matt Savage

Matthew Savage has an MSc in Psychology, is a qualified personal trainer, and has worked within the field of cognitive rehabilitation for 5 years. He is an FA qualified football coach, with a keen interest in moral behaviour and wellbeing within team sports. Matthew is also one of our Mental Health Triage Practitioners. 

References

Harvard Health Publishing, (2020). What is Cognitive Reserve? [Internet] Doi: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-is-cognitive-reserve [cited 29/12/2020]

Kramer AF, Erickson KI. Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: influence of physical activity on cognition and brain function. Trends Cogn Sci. 2007 Aug;11(8):342-8. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2007.06.009. Epub 2007 Jul 12. PMID: 17629545.

Li, Y., Li, Y., Li, X., Zhang, S., Zhao, J., Zhu, X., & Tian, G. (2017). Head Injury as a Risk Factor for Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 32 Observational Studies. PloS one, 12(1), e0169650. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169650

Ruthirakuhan, M., Luedke, A. C., Tam, A., Goel, A., Kurji, A., & Garcia, A. (2012). Use of physical and intellectual activities and socialization in the management of cognitive decline of aging and in dementia: a review. Journal of aging research, 2012, 384875. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/384875

Sampedro-Piquero, P., & Begega, A. (2017). Environmental Enrichment as a Positive Behavioral Intervention Across the Lifespan. Current neuropharmacology, 15(4), 459–470. https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159X14666160325115909

Scullin, M. K., & Bliwise, D. L. (2015). Sleep, cognition, and normal aging: integrating a half century of multidisciplinary research. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 10(1), 97–137. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614556680

Xie L, Kang H, Xu Q, Chen MJ, Liao Y, Thiyagarajan M, O'Donnell J, Christensen DJ, Nicholson C, Iliff JJ, Takano T, Deane R, Nedergaard M. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science. 2013 Oct 18;342(6156):373-7. doi: 10.1126/science.1241224. PMID: 24136970; PMCID: PMC3880190.

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