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 enrolled 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 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.