Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile
There is evidence of cognitive reserves in use all around us, we all know somebody whose sharp brain and intelligence at old age surprises us, some of us might even know someone facing health issues within their brain and have witnessed the brain's ability to cope with extreme, sometimes hopeless situations and amazingly start a recovering process.
Medical Science combined with people's strong will and spirit and sufficient financial resources can achieve amazing results that lead to overcome and prevent terrible conditions like Alzheimer’s and other illnesses that affect cognitive functions including old age which is a natural process. Information is a vital issue to achieve this goal.
Published December 11, 2007
The brain, like every other part of the body, changes with age, and those changes can impede clear thinking and memory. Yet many older people seem to remain sharp as a tack well into their 80s and beyond. Although their pace may have slowed, they continue to work, travel, attend plays and concerts, play cards and board games, study foreign languages, design buildings, work with computers, write books, do puzzles, knit or perform other mentally challenging tasks that can befuddle people much younger.
But when these sharp old folks die, autopsy studies often reveal extensive brain abnormalities like those in patients with Alzheimer’s. Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas and Yaakov Stern at Columbia University Medical Center recall that in 1988, a study of “cognitively normal elderly women” showed that they had “advanced Alzheimer’s disease pathology in their brains at death.” Later studies indicated that up to two-thirds of people with autopsy findings of Alzheimer’s disease were cognitively intact when they died.
“Something must account for the disjunction between the degree of brain damage and its outcome,” the Columbia scientists deduced. And that something, they and others suggest, is “cognitive reserve.”
Cognitive reserve, in this theory, refers to the brain’s ability to develop and maintain extra neurons and connections between them via axons and dendrites. Later in life, these connections may help compensate for the rise in dementia-related brain pathology that accompanies normal aging.
Cognitive reserve is greater in people who complete higher levels of education. The more intellectual challenges to the brain early in life, the more neurons and connections the brain is likely to develop and perhaps maintain into later years. Several studies of normal aging have found that higher levels of educational attainment were associated with slower cognitive and functional decline.But brain stimulation does not have to stop with the diploma. Better-educated people may go on to choose more intellectually demanding occupations and pursue brain-stimulating hobbies, resulting in a form of lifelong learning.
Long-term studies in other countries, including Sweden and China, have also found that continued social interactions helped protect against dementia.
As Sandra Aamodt, editor of Nature Neuroscience, and Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, recently stated on The New York Times’s Op-Ed page, physical exercise “improves what scientists call ‘executive function,’ the set of abilities that allows you to select behavior that’s appropriate to the situation, inhibit inappropriate behavior and focus on the job at hand in spite of distractions. Executive function includes basic functions like processing speed, response speed and working memory, the type used to remember a house number while walking from the car to a party.”
Although executive function typically declines with advancing years, “elderly people who have been athletic all their lives have much better executive function than sedentary people of the same age,” Dr. Aamodt and Dr. Wang reported.
The concept of a Cognitive Reserve has been around since 1989, when a post mortem analysis of 137 people with Alzheimer's Disease showed that some patients exhibited fewer clinical symptoms than their actual pathology suggested. These patients also showed higher brain weights and greater number of neurons when compared to age-matched controls. The investigators hypothesized that the patients had a larger "reserve" of neurons and abilities that enable them to offset the losses caused by Alzheimer's. Since then, the concept of Cognitive Reserve has been defined as the ability of an individual to tolerate progressive brain pathology without demonstrating clinical cognitive symptoms.
Dr. Yaakov Stern is the Division Leader of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the Sergievsky Center, and Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, New York.
He is one of the leading proponents of the Cognitive reserve theory, which aims to explain why some individuals with full Alzheimer's pathology (accumulation of plaques and tangles in their brains) can keep normal lives until they die, while others -with the same amount of plaques and tangles- display the severe symptoms we associate with Alzheimer’s Disease. He has published dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject.
Cerebral reserve, a notional quality that gives individuals differing levels of mental resilience, is a proposal that has all the ingredients needed to stoke a controversy - intelligence, genes, social status, education and health. Behind it all is a set of widely accepted scientific results that suggest that people with high intelligence and superior education cope better with the progress of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and recover more rapidly from stroke, head injuries, depression and even intoxication than the average. And while mental faculties always decline with age, there are marked differences in the rate at which the years dull the mind. Cerebral reserve was dreamt up to explain such anomalies.
The brain’s plasticity makes a strong case for measuring reserve. Cognition can be modified, even in the adult years, and neurons can be rearranged, by physical and mental exercises, be it crossword puzzles, juggling, or taking night classes. If the dwindling reserve is spotted early, it opens a biological window in which to boost cognition and slow the rate of decline.