November 27, 2013

Enrich Your Mind

High quality social connections appear to protect against cognitive decline. Recent studies show a 25 percent reduction in the risk of developing dementia among seniors who report feeling satisfied with the relationships in their lives. Having an interesting and fulfilling social life into your golden years is just one of several factors that may help preserve the brain’s store of knowledge and memory, a concept known as cognitive reserve.

A robust cognitive reserve is essential for keeping your mind sharp as you age. One recent study reported that nearly 40 percent of people who die without any measurable cognitive deficits have evidence of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains. These include the hallmark plaques and tangles.

How can this be? We now understand that some people seem to tolerate the pathologic brain changes of Alzheimer’s pretty well. It appears that having a well-funded intellectual savings account somehow compensates for whatever damage has accumulated in the brain. When there’s a pile-up or traffic jam on your main neural highways, cognitive reserve serves as an alternate route for information to travel. So, even if your preferred cognitive route is blocked, you still have a side exit and smaller streets available to get you to your destination. True, it may take you longer to get there, but at least you won’t be stuck indefinitely.

Scientists didn’t always believe there were ways to build up cognitive reserve throughout an entire lifetime. They used to think the brain behaved like cement: Young, freshly poured neural pathways could swiftly absorb materials and impressions but eventually these pathways would become set in stone, hardened and intractable with age. We now know this is far from true: The brain is more like a glorious garden, capable of growing, blooming and sending out new roots when the conditions are favorable. Research has shown that stimulating experiences and new learning, like sunshine and rain, allow this garden to flourish — and that’s true whether you are young or old.