Build a Cognitive Reserve for Brain Protection During Your Golden Years

Harvard Medical School has released an analysis of a research study published in Neurology in August 2022 that suggests the possibility exists to create what is being called a “cognitive reserve” that has the capability to protect an aging brain from the effects of dementia. Harvard Medical School physicians are equating building up a cognitive reserve to being something along the lines of making consistent deposits into your savings account. Over time, by making regular deposits, you develop a fund that can be used to cover future or unexpected expenses.

Overview of Research Study on Building Cognitive Reserve for Brain Protection

Neurology and Harvard describe the study as a process in which researchers gave cognitive tests to 1,184 people. The subjects were located in the United Kingdom. They were part of what that country classifies as the 1946 National Birth Cohort. The study of these individuals began at age eight and continued until age 69.

When the study participants reached their early 50s, the researchers calculated everyone’s cognitive reserve index. The cognitive reserve index is a numerical value based on factors linked with healthy brains. These include such elements as:

  • Education level
  • Mentally challenging occupations
  • Lifestyle habits that include:
    • Social engagements
    • Physical activities
    • Creative hobbies

At the juncture in time when the group was last tested by researchers, which was at age 69, those with the highest cognitive scores also had the highest cognitive reserve index. This finding suggests that engaging in a mentally stimulating lifestyle when they were younger helped them retain thinking and memory skills later in life.

Is It Ever Too Late to Build a Cognitive Reserve?

Harvard Medical School discussed whether or not it can be too late to build a cognitive reserve in your 60s and 70s. According to Harvard Medical School, the answer to this question is not necessary. As the researchers noted, other studies have suggested that adopting brain-stimulating habits in older age can still offer protection against cognitive decline. And a combination of endeavors – mental, social, and physical – provides the best buffer.

Mental Activities and Building a Cognitive Reserve

There are a variety of activities that appear to be helpful in enhancing your mental acuity and protecting against cognitive decline when a person is in their 60s and 70s, perhaps even older. Seven examples of mental activities that may prove helpful in building a cognitive reserve when a person is in their 60s and 70s are:

  • Puzzles
  • Crafts
  • Music
  • Gardening
  • Eating
  • Cooking
  • Writing

Social Activities and Building a Cognitive Reserve

The Alzheimer’s Association advises that social engagement is directly associated with reduced rates of disability, depression, and mortality. Remaining socially active is demonstrated to be effective at supporting brain health and delaying the onset of dementia. This support of brain health and potentially delaying the onset of dementia are indicative of what Harvard Medical School refers to as building a cognitive reserve to better protect your brain during your Golden Years.

There are a variety of ways in which a person can remain socially active during the latter years of life. These include:

  • Participating in family activities
  • Walking with others
  • Participating in a church or other religious organization
  • Volunteering
  • Participating in a book club
  • Coffee with friends
  • Attending events and programs with friends

As a person advances further into the Golden Years, becoming a part of an assisted living community may be a course to consider. One of the key benefits of residing in an assisted living community is the opportunity for consistent socialization with others.

Physical Activities and Building a Cognitive Reserve

In addition to mental and social activities that appear to build what Harvard calls a cognitive brain reserve, there are physical activities that seem to support brain health as well. Another research study revealed that older people who reported exercising for at least 30 minutes at least three times a week demonstrated a nearly 40 percent lower risk of dementia when contrasted with people who were less physically active.

The study included 639 people. The participants had an average age of 74. All participants were living independently and without disabilities. Of these people, 90 developed dementia during the three years of follow-up during the research period.

As an aside, before beginning a new course of physical activity or exercise, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss what you intend to do. It is important to confirm that you have the necessary physical attributes necessary to undertake a particular course of physical activity.

Variety of Activities Contribute to Enhanced Brain Health

Yet another research study found that people who had the greatest diversity of activities had the highest cognitive function scores overall. Even after adjusting for the amount of time that an individual spent on activities, the effect associated with engaging in a variety of activities was significant.

Study researchers stated: “In other words, it is not that someone with diverse activities spends longer being active. Instead, it seems that it is the diversity itself that makes the difference.” In fact, the association remained significant even after adjusting for age, gender, race, level of education, self-reported physical health, and self-reported well-being.

The research scientists also found that individuals who increased their activity diversity the most during the study period had better cognitive scores than those who maintained low levels of diversity or whose level of diversity decreased during the course of the research. In addition, the research scientists identified this association between diverse activities and better cognitive performance across all age groups.

In the final analysis, the concept of building a cognitive reserve to provide brain protection during your Golden Years does appear to be supported by meaningful data derived from scientific research. Moreover, even if you are like many people and were somewhat lax in building a cognitive reserve previously in your life, it appears that it really is never too late to start engaging in different activities that have the potential to enhance brain health and stave off symptoms of dementia.

ting brain-stimulating habits in older age can still offer protection against cognitive decline. And a combination of endeavors – mental, social, and physical –  provides the best buffer.