Cognitive reserves and staying sharp

SharpBrains has a great interview with neuropsychologist Prof Yaakov Stern who discusses his research on maintaining a healthy brain and gives plenty of great advice for keeping your edge throughout life.

Stern talks about the cognitive and neural ‘reserve theories’ which argue that the mind and brain have a certain tolerance to decline and damage before they go into the freefall of dementia.

It’s sort of a threshold theory, suggesting that if the strain on the brain reaches past a certain point, the system starts to break down rapidly.

The amount of ‘reserve’ or the threshold varies between individuals, so some people are more likely to get dementia than others.

We know that genetics is one component, but what Stern’s research has also shown is that we can play an active part in boosting our reserve and raising our dementia threshold.

In other words, by changing our lifestyle we can maintain our mental sharpness for longer and reduce the chances of getting a degenerative brain disease.

Healthy diet, exercise and nutrition are key, but education, keeping mentally active and having a varied social life might also be important.

AF: Can you give us some examples of those leisure activities that seem to have the most positive effects?

YS: For our 2001 study we evaluated the effect of 13 activities, combining intellectual, physical, and social elements. Some of the activities with the most effect were reading, visiting friends or relatives, going to movies or restaurants, and walking for pleasure or going on an excursion. As you can see, a variety. We saw that the group with high level of leisure activities presented 38% less risk (controlling for other factors) of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms. And that, for each additional type of activity, the risk got reduced by 8%.

There is an additional element that we are starting to see more clearly. Physical exercise, by itself, also has a very beneficial impact on cognition. Only a few months ago researchers were able to show for the first time how physical activity promotes neurogenesis in the human brain. So, we need both mental and physical exercise. The not-so-good news is that, as of today, there no clear recipe for success. More research is needed before we prepare a systematic set of interventions that can help maximize our protection.

The interview also has plenty more practical advice, links to the original scientific papers, and a video, which I can’t watch because it’s blocked at work. Grrrr!

Link to SharpBrains interview with Prof Yaakov Stern.

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