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Mind matters

How to keep mind matters in reserve


An important concept that is crucial to the understanding of cognitive health is known as cognitive reserve. Think of this as your brain's ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done.

In reporting on cognitive reserve, Harvard University uses the analogy that just like a powerful car that enables you to engage another gear and suddenly accelerate to avoid an obstacle, your brain can change the way it operates.  With the end result of creating added resources to cope with challenges.   

Evidence is growing that cognitive reserve develops over a lifetime of education and curiosity to help your brain better cope with any failures or declines it faces. 

The concept of cognitive reserve originated in the late 1980s.  At a time when researchers described individuals with no apparent symptoms of dementia who were nonetheless found at autopsy to have brain changes consistent with advanced Alzheimer's disease.

These individuals did not show symptoms of the disease while they were alive because they had a large enough cognitive reserve to offset the damage and continue to function as usual. 

Since then, research has shown that people with greater cognitive reserve are better able to stave off symptoms of degenerative brain changes associated with dementia or other brain diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke. A more robust cognitive reserve can also help you function better for longer if you're exposed to unexpected life events, such as stress, surgery, or toxins in the environment. Such circumstances demand extra effort from your brain—similar to requiring a car to engage another gear.

As a starting point, Harvard University research says that it is important to remember that having a healthy body is key to a healthy brain. 

They list six elements that can help to improve brain power.

  1. Eating a plant based diet.
  2. Exercising regularly.
  3. Getting enough sleep.
  4. Managing stress.
  5. Nurturing social contacts.
  6. Continuing to challenge your brain.

The Harvard researchers emphasize the importance of cultivating these factors together, as they reinforce each other and lead to optimal brain and cognitive health.
The first four factors – concerning diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction – can be seen as indirect support for cognitive health. Together, they represent the “healthy mind in a healthy body” principle.

The last two factors, social interaction and challenging the brain, involve cognition more directly. Hence concepts like belonging and engagement with others is critical.

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Date Published: December 2022

To be reviewed: December 2025



Mind matters

The gut-brain connection

Medical blog Dr Ruscio.com says a healthy diet is key for cognitive function and labels this as the ‘gut/brain’ connection. Research shows that avoiding sugar, processed foods, and other foods that increase inflammation can make a significant difference in brain health.

The site makes the point that cognitive health is a crucial component to overall vitality, wellbeing, and quality of life. Luckily, plenty of things can be done to improve cognitive function, regardless of age and health status.

Advocacy group Age UK says that the cognitive reserve hypothesis gives hope that exposure to various sorts of stimulating activities can help us to age successfully. Begging the question: what people can do to help increase their cognitive reserve?

It is still unclear what the ‘recipe’ for this is or whether in fact there is any semblance of a recipe at all. The evidence from studies of large populations suggests that it is exposure to the experiences and activities across the lifetime that contribute to reserve. Science still has not cracked the puzzle of what specific activities would slow the rate of cognitive decline or reduce the risk of dementia.

Evidence suggests that the earlier we start building our cognitive reserve, the better, but that we can continue to develop reserves in later life. So it is never too early or too late to start, and the more activities, the better as the positive effects appear to be cumulative.