Maintaining a Cognitive Reserve

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Filed Under: Diet, Mood & Memory
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Maintaining a Cognitive Reserve

Mentally challenging activities can offer protection from diseases of the brain

Research shows that the human brain begins to lose memory capacity by the age of 18, and the ability to memorize becomes far more difficult as early as age 30. At age 40, there are obvious signs of wear and tear on the brain. And, like many other diseases once relegated to the elderly, the beginnings of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are now showing up at 50 years of age.

After age 65, the risk of dementia doubles every five years. Presently, more than a quarter of those over 85 suffer from dementia, and with the “baby boomers” (those born between 1946 and 1964) now reaching their golden years, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s will become even more commonplace in our society.

Although it appears that a certain degree of forgetfulness and memory difficulty is normal, new research has uncovered several steps that can be taken at any age to help protect your brain. Scientists have now found that one of the best methods of fending off the symptoms of dementia and brain damage is to build up a “cognitive reserve.”

People who live intellectually stimulating lives and who are better educated are somehow better protected against the factors that trigger mental decline. And the protection is not just limited to advancing age, but also problems normally associated with stroke, head injuries, toxic poisoning, excess alcohol, HIV, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.

It appears that increased mental stimulation— whether it comes from a career, reading, doing crosswords, or whatever—helps build up this cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve isn’t something you’re born with. It’s dynamic and changes with time. You can increase your cognitive reserve at any point in your life. MRI studies show that the brain builds up alternative and additional nerve pathways when it is challenged by a new problem.

Until this new discovery, scientists were unable to explain why some individuals were able to recover from a stroke while others with almost identical damage were left incapacitated. And, while Alzheimer’s disease totally destroys the lives of most individuals, some who are afflicted with the disease live an almost completely normal life right to the end. In fact, in many cases, the only time Alzheimer’s is discovered is during an autopsy.

When there is an assault to the brain, a cognitive reserve allows messages to be re-routed through alternative networks and pathways. In essence, the more neuronal networks you have, the more damage to the brain you can sustain without exhibiting the signs of mental decline.

Mental gymnastics isn’t the only key to building a cognitive reserve. Nutrition can also play a key role in protecting and repairing the brain tissue. While I’ve discussed many of these specific nutrients in the past—coenzyme Q10, L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, lecithin and related compounds, royal jelly, ashwagandha, et cetera—the key components for learning and proper brain function are the fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is why I strongly suggest that you eat foods that contain these compounds at least twice a week. (DHA is the more important of the two.) Particularly good sources are salmon, sardines, and tuna. I eat them all, but consider sardines one of the best bargains when it comes to improving brain health and increasing your cognitive reserve.

Sardines are not only good sources of essential fatty acids, they are one of the richest sources of nucleotides—the sub-units or building blocks from which your body creates RNA and DNA. And, among dozens of other positive attributes, they help stimulate the production of neurotransmitters in the brain. One of the best steps you can implement to build “cognitive reserve” is to eat two tins of sardines a week.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but I need to mention that exercise also plays a role in brain function. It should go without saying that proper circulation can trigger new brain cell formation and ensure the proper nutrients and building materials are present when needed.

This Is Your Brain on Drugs

One other largely overlooked factor that leads to dementia and mental decline is the use of drugs. Researchers in this area consistently warn against the use of “street drugs”—but never mention any of the dangers associated with over-the-counter or prescription drugs. The pharmaceutical industry would like you to believe that any of their products is safe when used as directed.

The truth is that many drugs used by the elderly have side effects that mimic dementia, and can even lead to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. They can adversely alter brain function, often permanently. And we’re talking about such commonly used remedies as those for hay fever, colds and flu, insomnia, headaches, bowel problems, and more.

I’ve said it before. Minimize your use of all types of drugs. They cause untold amounts of damage and disruption within the body, particularly with long-term use. Reducing your cognitive reserve is only one item in a long list of problems.

In speaking to the researchers who are studying cognitive reserve, two comments were made that stuck in my mind. First, based on his lifelong work, one researcher told me the bad news is that everyone will eventually get Alzheimer’s if they live long enough. Second, the good news was that everyone has the ability to increase their cognitive reserve, regardless of age, and it is the most powerful tool we have to prevent the progression of the disease.

I’ve covered a lot of different areas. Don’t get overwhelmed and end up doing nothing. Take one idea or technique at a time and implement it now. After it becomes routine, gradually add another then another.

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