Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What is Your Level of Cognitive Reserve? by Michael Logan

Not sure about you, but this 62 year old brain needs all the cognitive reserve it can get.

So perhaps you are wondering what cognitive reserve is before you order some for yourself?

"In 1988 a study published in Annals of Neurology reporting findings from post-mortem examinations on 137 elderly persons unexpectedly revealed that there was a discrepancy between the degree of Alzheimer's disease neuropathology and the clinical manifestations of the disease. This is to say that some participants whose brains had extensive Alzheimer's disease pathology, clinically had no or very little manifestations of the disease. Furthermore, the study showed that these persons had higher brain weights and greater number of neurons as compared to age-matched controls. The investigators speculated with two possible explanations for this phenomenon: these people may have had incipient Alzheimer's disease but somehow avoided the loss of large numbers of neurons, or alternatively, started with larger brains and more neurons and thus might be said to have had a greater "reserve". This is the first time this term has been used in the literature in this context." Wikipedia

So cognitive reserve is higher brain weight and a larger amount of neurons, and those neurons basically could reroute signals around alzheimer's plaques in the brain so the individual could continue to function appropriately.

I believe the subjects in that study were retired nuns who lived in Mankato, Minnesota.

So now are you interested in going out to buy some cognitive reserve?

Actually you can only buy part of it. The rest of cognitive reserve is going to come from your lifestyle, and these days folks are calling that 'brain fitness'.

Brain fitness and the heavier brains that come from it result from attending daily to the pillars of brain fitness, which are usually described as physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress management, and novel learning experiences, which was a very important part of cognitive reserve tool box for the nuns in the study mentioned above. They continued to read challenging material for example, and engage in social activities, well into their 90's.

The good news is that we can begin working on this at any age, and make improvements in our cognitive reserve.

For a great overview of the brain fitness for aging successfully model, read Brainfit for Life by Simon Evans, Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D. who are neuroscientists at the University of Michigan.

The most important pillar of cognitive reserve is the physical exercise pillar, which could be bad news if you have been sedentary for a long time.

But the good news is that any exercise, to begin, is good exercise, as long as it makes you breathe deeply enough that it is hard to breathe and talk at the same time. So get going around the block, for at least 10 minutes, two times per day.

Remember what is at stake, your excellence at trivial pursuit.

The next pillar of brain fitness is nutrition, which means we have to put an end to processed foods, anything that comes in a box or package. Our processed foods are more chemistry experiment than food anymore, filled with high fructose corn syrup and appetite stimulants that make it impossible to just eat one.

Evans and Burghardt speak to the need for antioxidants daily, plus at least one gram of omega 3 fatty acid. The best source of omega 3 is fish, but if you are worried about mercury in your fish, then you will want to look at supplements. So stress management and sleep are important in the neurogenesis and neuroplasticity game, which is what we want if we are getting a late start in the cognitive reserve game.

Stress hormones like unnecessary adrenalin and cortisol actually kill those new brain cells we grow every day, and we need to have at least two hormones bathe the brain during sleep each night, melatonin and ATP, for there to be a complete cycle of memory consolidation. That happens during your sleep.

The novel learning pillar means that we need to challenge those new neurons and get them connected to other neurons with the kind of learning we usually experience when we undertake to learn a new language or instrument.

So if you are a sudoku fanatic, you will have to learn something else for cognitive reserve to happen, because your brain already knows sudoku. Same for me with counseling. I cannot read another counseling book and expect to build cognitive reserve.

Once again, what is required for cognitive reserve is regular effort. Progress not perfection.