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Education AND Lifelong Cognitive Activities build Cognitive Reserve and Delay Memory Loss

In a recently pub­lished sci­en­tific study (see Hall C, et al “Cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties delay onset of mem­ory decline in per­sons who develop demen­tia” Neu­rol­ogy 2009; 73: 356–361), Hall and col­leagues exam­ined how edu­ca­tion and stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties may inter­act to con­tribute to cog­ni­tive reserve. The study involved 488 ini­tially healthy peo­ple, aver­age age 79, who brain teasers job interviewenrolled in the Bronx Aging Study between 1980 and 1983. These indi­vid­u­als were fol­lowed for 5 years with assess­ments every 12 to 18 months (start­ing in 1980). At the start of the study, all par­tic­i­pants were asked how many cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties (read­ing, writ­ing, cross­word puz­zles, board or card games, group dis­cus­sions, or play­ing music) they par­tic­i­pated in and for how many days a week. Researchers were able to eval­u­ate the impact of self-reported par­tic­i­pa­tion these activ­i­ties on the onset of accel­er­ated mem­ory decline in 101 indi­vid­u­als who devel­oped demen­tia dur­ing the study.

Results showed that for every “activ­ity day” (par­tic­i­pa­tion in one activ­ity for one day a week) the sub­jects engaged in, they delayed for about two months the onset of rapid mem­ory loss asso­ci­ated with demen­tia. Inter­est­ingly, the pos­i­tive effect of brain-stimulating activ­i­ties in this study appeared to be inde­pen­dent of a person’s level of education.

This is great news as it sug­gests that it is never too late to try to build up brain reserve. The more brain stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties one does and the more often, the bet­ter for a stronger cog­ni­tive reserve.

The cog­ni­tive reserve hypoth­e­sis sug­gests that indi­vid­u­als with more cog­ni­tive reserve can expe­ri­ence more Alzheimer’s dis­ease pathol­ogy in the brain (more plaques and tan­gles) with­out devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease symptoms.

How does that work? Sci­en­tists are not sure but two pos­si­bil­i­ties are con­sid­ered.
1. One is that more cog­ni­tive reserve means more brain reserve, that is more neu­rons and con­nec­tions between neu­rons.
2. Another pos­si­bil­ity is that more cog­ni­tive reserve means more com­pen­satory processes (see my pre­vi­ous post “Edu­ca­tion builds Cog­ni­tive Reserve for Alzheimers Dis­ease Pro­tec­tion” for more details.)

Now, one may won­der about the dif­fer­ence types of men­tal stim­u­la­tion avail­able, includ­ing not only puz­zles and such, but struc­tured activ­i­ties such as brain fit­ness soft­ware and med­i­ta­tion. Do we exer­cise our brain every time we think about some­thing? What can one do to exer­cise one’s brain in ways that enhance capac­ity? Does aer­o­bic fit­ness train­ing also exer­cise one’s brain? What types of method­olo­gies and prod­ucts are avail­able? Do they “work”? Are all the same?

Those are the types of ques­tions we wanted to address in the book The Sharp­Brains Guide To Brain Fit­ness (avail­able via Amazon.com). We are proud of the recog­ni­tion the book has started to obtain, includ­ing endorse­ments by lead­ing scientists:

The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness is the only book that I know of that seam­lessly inte­grates lat­est infor­ma­tion about cog­ni­tive health across the lifes­pan, with inter­views with active researchers exam­in­ing cog­ni­tive main­te­nance and enhance­ment, along with reviews of com­mer­cial prod­ucts tar­geted to cog­ni­tive enhance­ment. The book should be very use­ful to any­one inter­ested in brain care, both health care pro­fes­sion­als and the pub­lic at large”.
— Arthur Kramer, Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at Uni­ver­sity of Illinois

This Sharp­Brains book pro­vides a very valu­able ser­vice to a wide com­mu­nity inter­ested in learn­ing and brain top­ics. I found it inter­est­ing and help­ful“
- Michael Pos­ner, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon, and first recip­i­ent of the Dogan Prize

Pascale MichelonPas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., is Sharp­Brains’ Research Man­ager for Edu­ca­tional Projects. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­ogy Depart­ment. She con­ducted sev­eral research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visual infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ulty at Wash­ing­ton University.

Ref­er­ences:

- Study: Hall C, et al “Cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties delay onset of mem­ory decline in per­sons who develop demen­tia” Neu­rol­ogy 2009; 73: 356–361

- Book: The Sharp­Brains Guide To Brain Fit­ness: 18 Inter­views with Sci­en­tists, Prac­ti­cal Advice, and Prod­uct Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp

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