What is cognitive reserve?

An important concept that is crucial to the understanding of cognitive health is known as cognitive reserve. You can think of cognitive reserve as your brain's ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done. 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 and thus make added recourses available to cope with challenges. Cognitive reserve is developed by 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, 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 the 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. When the brain cannot cope, you can become confused, develop delirium, or show signs of disease. Therefore, an important goal is to build and sustain your cognitive reserve. You can get a rough idea of your cognitive reserve simply by gauging how much your education, work, and other activities have challenged your brain over the years. Our six-step program will help you improve your cognitive reserve. 

To learn more about staying mentally sharp and fit, read Cognitive Fitness, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. 

A Guide to Cognitive Fitness

In this Special Health Report, Harvard Medical School doctors share a six step program that can yield important and lasting results. Together these “super 6” can strengthen your intellectual prowess, promote your powers of recall, and protect the brain-based skills that are essential for full, rewarding, and independent living. From simple and specific changes in eating to ways to challenge your brain, this is guidance that will pay dividends for you and your future.

We are living longer than ever before. Human life expectancy has grown spectacularly over
the past few decades, thanks to advances in public health and medicine. With maturity comes
a wealth of experience and knowledge. Yet age also brings an increasing risk for major medical
conditions. Brain problems are a particular concern as we grow older. According to the
World Health Organization, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases will affect one out of every
five people at some point in life, and these conditions are the main cause of lifelong disability
The good news is that declining brain health and cognitive loss are not inevitable. Drawing on
decades of research, this report highlights six pillars of brain health that can help you sustain
good brain function and cognitive fitness (the ability to learn, reason, remember, and adapt
your thinking processes) into old age.
Maintaining cognitive fitness requires far more than a simple “train your brain” program or
diet, as some quick-fix online programs suggest. Research confirms that retaining mental
sharpness requires certain lifestyle interventions, working in concert—specifically, adjusting
what and how you eat, how much you exercise, how you deal with life’s challenges, and how
you interact with others. If you turn these behaviors into habits that you can sustain over the
long term, that will have dramatic effects not only on your cognitive fitness, but also on your
overall health.
The earlier you start, the better. Evidence suggests that the more cognitively fit you are
throughout your life, the better armed your brain will be against the assaults of aging—including
illness and any stressful events you might face. You may even be able to prevent certain
brain problems from occurring in the first place, rather than having to combat them when
they arise.
Good brain health is more than the absence of disease. It’s optimizing your brain function as
you age. In the process, you not only lower your risk for age-related cognitive decline and brain
diseases, but also improve your overall health and wellbeing.