What is ‘cognitive reserve’? How we can protect our brains from memory loss and dementia



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Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities can help build your resilience to cognitive decline.
Gene Wilburn/Flickr, CC BY

Michael Ridding, University of Adelaide

As we get older we have a greater risk of developing impairments in areas of cognitive function – such as memory, reasoning and verbal ability. We also have a greater risk of dementia, which is what we call cognitive decline that interferes with daily life. The trajectory of this cognitive decline can vary considerably from one person to the next.

Despite these varying trajectories, one thing is for sure: even cognitively normal people experience pathological changes in their brain, including degeneration and atrophy, as they age. By the time a person reaches the age of 70 to 80, these changes closely resemble those seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Even so, many people are able to function normally in the presence of significant brain damage and pathology. So why do some experience symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, while others remain sharp of mind?

It comes down to something called cognitive reserve. This is a concept used to explain a person’s capacity to maintain normal cognitive function in the presence of brain pathology. To put it simply, some people have better cognitive reserve than others.

Evidence shows the extent of someone’s cognitive decline doesn’t occur in line with the amount of biological damage in their brain as it ages. Rather, certain life experiences determine someone’s cognitive reserve and, therefore, their ability to avoid dementia or memory loss.

How do we know?

Being educated, having higher levels of social interaction or working in cognitively demanding occupations (managerial or professional roles, for instance) increases resilience to cognitive decline and dementia. Many studies have shown this. These studies followed people over a number of years and looked for signs of them developing cognitive decline or dementia in that period.

As we get older we have a greater risk of developing impairments in cognitive function, such as memory.
from shutterstock.com

Cognitive reserve is traditionally measured and quantified based on self reports of life experience such as education level, occupational complexity and social engagement. While these measures provide an indication of reserve, they’re only of limited use if we want to identify those at risk of cognitive decline. Genetic influences obviously play a part in our brain development and will influence resilience.

Brain plasticity

The fundamental brain mechanisms that underpin cognitive reserve are still unclear.
The brain consists of complex, richly interconnected networks that are responsible for our cognitive ability. These networks have the capacity to change and adapt to task demands or brain damage. And this capacity is essential not only for normal brain function, but also for maintaining cognitive performance in later life.

This adaptation is governed by brain plasticity. This is the brain’s ability to continuously modulate its structure and function throughout life in response to different experiences. So, plasticity and flexibility in brain networks likely contribute in a major way to cognitive reserve and these processes are influenced by both genetic profiles and life experiences.

A major focus of our research is examining how brain connectivity and plasticity relate to reserve and cognitive function. We hope this will help identify a measure of reserve that reliably identifies individuals at risk of cognitive decline.

Strengthening your brain

While there is little we can do about our genetic profile, adapting our lifestyles to include certain types of behaviours offers a significant opportunity to improve our cognitive reserve.

Activities that engage your brain, such as learning a new language and completing crosswords, as well as having high levels of social interaction, increase reserve and can reduce your risk of developing dementia.

Regular physical activity increases cognitive reserve.
Jenny Hill/Unsplash, CC BY

Regular physical activity also improves cognitive function and reduces the risk of dementia. Unfortunately, little evidence is available to suggest what type of physical activity, as well as intensity and amount, is required to best increase reserve and protect against cognitive impairment.

There is also mounting evidence that being sedentary for long periods of the day is bad for health. This might even undo any benefits gained from periods of physical activity. So, it is important to understand how the composition of physical activity across the day impacts brain health and reserve, and this is an aim of our work.

The ConversationOur ongoing studies should contribute to the development of evidence-based guidelines that provide clear advice on physical activity patterns for optimising brain health and resilience.

Michael Ridding, Professor, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My Fight with CFS … Part 1


I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), or as I prefer to call it, Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS). It is an extremely misunderstood and debilitating illness. I have read that the average time for a person to be ill with CFS is 18 months. I have had it for 18 years more or less. It has cost me a lot to be suffering from this illness and it impacts on my life on a daily basis. Some days are not too bad, while others are extremely terrible.

My journey with CFS began in the aftermath of the Newcastle earthquake of the 28th December 1989. In early 1990, while working at Hawkins Masonic Village repairing roofs damaged by the earthquake (it was raining and many roofs were leaking), I began to feel persistently unwell. I decided to see my doctor who put it down as some sort of stomach bug, most likely Gastroenteritis. After two weeks of medication it was becoming clear that I did not have Gastroenteritis and something more sinister was the cause of my intensifying illness.

Within weeks I had begun to develop all of the debilitating symptoms of CFS and what was worse for me they were all intensifying their effects upon me. What was wrong with me was now something of a mystery, but it was clear I was very ill and getting worse.

When I was younger I had Hyperthyroidism and so the doctor assumed that this was what was wrong with me again, despite the fact that blood tests indicated I no longer had an issue with that disorder. I was placed on medication for Hyperthyroidism and monitored. The medication had no effect on my illness and my patience with ‘witch doctoring’ was running out. I pleaded with my doctor to send me to someone else – a specialist. But who would be useful to see?

A friend had recently been diagnosed with CFS by an Immunologist and eventually I prevailed with my doctor to send me to him. Eventually I was able to set up an appointment and so my time with Doctor Sutherland of the Royal Newcastle Hospital Immunology Department had begun.

By this time I was suffering a myriad array of symptoms, with varying degrees of intensity depending on what week I was asked. Among the most debilitating of these symptoms was a persistent headache that no amount of painkilling or other medication had any impact upon. The headache was like a migraine that wouldn’t go away. It would last for an 18 month stretch this first time, bringing with it an intolerance of bright light, noise, etc. These things caused me immense head pain.

I was also suffering numerous nose bleeds (which I often get when I am very ill), fevers and chills, brain fog (a situation where you seem to know what is going on yet you have an inability to act in a logical manner – some times the sense of knowing what is happening disappears altogether), painful eyes, chronic fatigue in the muscles and extreme soreness, tiredness to the point of sleeping at a drop of a hat (I was sleeping for over 18 hours a day with no relief to my tiredness, headaches, etc), loss of strength in my limbs, constant nausea, inability to think or concentrate, etc.

By this time I was already having time away from work, with being away for weeks at a time being the norm – thankfully they were quite understanding of the fact that I was very ill.

At my lowest point during these first two years I was reduced to being bed-ridden, using a cane for stability when walking and at times was unable to walk. I was sleeping above 18 hours a day with no benefit from it.

During this time of extreme illness I was subjected to innumerable blood tests and other tests, which all revealed little at all as to the cause of my illness. A process of careful elimination under the care of Dr. Sutherland brought the diagnosis of CFS, as well as a psychological evaluation.

There was no cure to be found, with the only helpful advice having come from Dr. Sutherland. He told me to try and rest, then to slowly build myself up again. Walk one block for a week, then two blocks the following week, etc. If I overdid it I would be back in a heap again in no time. I needed to be able to read my own situation to know when I should try to rebuild my life. This advice has helped me through the last 18 years.

I struggled with the illness for 18 months or so and I also struggled with the enigma associated with the illness. That I was sick was not believed by all and this has been a constant stereotype I have been confronted with throughout my illness. I often found myself questioning whether I was sick or whether it was some mental thing. It was a relief when a doctor finally gave me a name for the illness and confirmed I was indeed very ill.

There were times (as there has been since) when I thought that dying would be a better alternative than to be as sick as I was, with no life and the prospect of endless years of severe illness. Suicide was something that popped into my head from time to time, but thankfully it didn’t stay there for long.

At times I found myself not knowing what I was doing, where I had been, etc. At one point I waited behind a parked car, waiting for it to turn the corner only to realise ½ an hour or so later that the car was parked. I found myself having gone shopping with a load of groceries I didn’t need and never had used before. It was like having a form of early onset Dementia.

After about 18 months I began to get better – or so I thought. I was well enough to knock back participation in a trial medication experiment for CFS sufferers which would involve a lengthy stay in hospital and a 50% chance I would receive the placebo.  I declined the invitation being concerned I would loose my job as a result of being in hospital for so long.

My health began to improve and I thought I was finally over the illness. During this time I lost contact with Dr. Sutherland who left the hospital because of a dispute with NSW health at the time. Many doctors left the public system at the time.

NEXT: The illness returns

Old People Allowed to Be Rude


I never knew that being old made it allowable to be rude. However, this would seem to be the growing acceptable trend with older people. It would appear to me that this is the seeming policy in Aged Care these days, as well as in Retirement Villages, general public places, etc. You are no longer allowed to challenge poor behaviour in the elderly because they are old. Does being old give you a right to abuse people and to be rude ~ I wouldn’t have thought so, but apparently it is becoming an acceptable practice/trend.

Isn’t it interesting that in an age where any form of physical discipline of children is regarded as being child abuse, that the rate of poor behaviour in children is increasing to an alarming level? I have heard it said, that a lot of older people with Dementia-type illnesses return to a child-like state. But it seems to me, that by virtue of becoming old, a good number of older people are also being allowed to misbehave by society and are not being challenged concerning their behaviour simply because they are ‘old.’

Perhaps this is just another example of the way modern society is heading ~ a culture of disrespect for others and a strong sense of self-centredness.

I have a theory about all this ~ there is nothing really new under the sun. What earlier generations once called ‘sin,’ and what the Bible still does, modern society appears to be happy to call it becoming more self-aware and in touch with your needs, expressing healthy concern for self and meeting what self requires. I think I prefer the Biblical explanation. It is quite simply an expression of rebellion against God and disobedience to his law – in other words, sin.