Written by: Denise John, PhD Published on: January 26, 2023
It is possible to improve learning, reasoning, and memory as your brain ages. But if you’re devoted to your daily crossword puzzle in the hopes that it alone will keep you sharp, it really doesn’t work that way. Researchers say there’s no silver bullet for improving cognition. “It’s not just about crossword-puzzle-solving,” says Anja Soldan, PhD, an associate professor of neurology at John Hopkins University, who is currently working on a research study on how the brain ages. “Exposing yourself to new things, new ideas, new experiences—that’s beneficial.”
Creating novel experiences can help build what scientists call your cognitive reserve. It’s hard for them to define, but as the name suggests, it’s like backup mental activity. As the structure of your brain (including the cerebral cortex, specific brain regions, and white matter tracts that connect areas of the brain) starts changing and possibly shrinking with age and plaques and tangles potentially begin to develop, more cognitive reserve gives your brain resilience that allows it to continue to function well, even when its physical structure isn’t at its best.
The concept of cognitive reserve comes from a 1989 study of autopsy results of older women. They were considered cognitively healthy at the time of their deaths, yet their brains had many plaques that are seen in people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists attributed the discrepancy between the women’s physical brains and their cognitive health to some type of reserve that allowed them to compensate for the changes in their brain.
BUILDING COGNITIVE RESERVE
What creates cognitive reserve? “We don’t have a good understanding yet,” Soldan says. “We are only starting to get an understanding of what’s happening in the brain that allows someone to have what we think is more reserve than somebody else.” It could be anything from the size of a person’s brain to an increase in brain connectivity because of how engaged they have been throughout life. “We think it has to do with how we process tasks in our brain, how we solve problems, how we remember—those cognitive processes are probably more resilient in some people than in others,” says Yaakov Stern, PhD, a professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University.
Research shows that the things that are generally healthy for your brain are probably helpful in building your cognitive reserve, including:
Education. Studies show that people who have more years of education have a reduced risk of developing dementia and other age-related cognitive decline, compared to those with fewer.
Leisure and social activities. “There are studies suggesting that greater engagement in activities that are cognitively, socially, or physically stimulating is beneficial,” says Soldan. In one study, people who spent time with friends or family, reading, going out to restaurants or to see a movie, walking, or vacationing were less likely to develop dementia later in life.
Stimulating work. A study showed that people with more complexity in their work—anything that involved decision-making, problem-solving, creative thinking, or coaching or mentoring others—were less likely to experience rapid cognitive decline during retirement.
A balanced diet. Research shows that a balanced diet—plenty of veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains, and healthy fats—may benefit cognitive function later in life. Creating a balanced diet with your lifestyle and food preferences in mind is key.
Bilingualism. Learning a second (or third or fourth) language may help build cognitive reserve, too, but experts say that the research is conflicting on bilingualism. Some studies find it beneficial, while others don’t. It likely depends on how well the person knows the second language, how often they use it, and whether they frequently switch back and forth. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to learn another language.
Scientists aren’t yet sure how these behaviors potentially benefit cognitive reserve, but they could be increasing brain connectivity by improving synchronicity of brain regions, strengthening neuronal connections, or improving neurotransmitter functioning.
So if you must finish your daily crossword puzzle, do it because you enjoy it. “You hear a lot about brain training or doing crossword puzzles [for cognition], but I don’t think there’s any one magic activity,” Stern says. The key is being engaged—physically, cognitively, and socially—throughout life.