The following statistics may startle you. One in ten people over the age of 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s, and 50% of people over the age of 85 experience symptoms. 1 To make matters worse, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. There are treatments, but not very many options. And the options that are available, aren’t very effective. Until treatment options become more advanced, or a cure is discovered, we must rely on prevention.
The Importance Of Your Cognitive Reserves
The Cognitive Reserve Theory is one way people can delay symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s. Cognitive Reserve refers to the amount of brain cells and synaptic connections between those brain cells. It describes the mind’s resistance to damage. This resistance is evaluated on a behavioral level. In other words, a higher cognitive reserve won’t prevent you from actually contracting Alzheimer’s disease, but it will keep you from experiencing symptoms.
Research shows that there is a discrepancy between neurophathological damage being caused by Alzheimer’s disease, and behavioral alterations that manifest as a result of that damage. 2 Let me explain. Let’s pretend Patient A and Patient B have contracted Alzheimer’s disease. They contracted the disease at the same time, and their brain’s have sustained equal damage. Patient A is experiencing serious symptoms. These symptoms may include severe memory loss, inability to form new memories, and mood disturbances. Patient B, on the other hand, is experiencing no symptoms at all. Even though he has the disease, and the disease is causing neurological damage to his brain, his mind is unaffected.
What ‘s the difference between Patient A and Patient B? Patient B has a larger cognitive reserve. Even though Patient B’s neurons are being damaged by Alzheimer’s, his brain is able to rely on neurons that haven’t sustained damage. His cognitive reserve acts as a buffer, and keeps his mind safe from the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s. Even though he has the disease, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the way he acts. Depending on the size of one’s cognitive reserve, they may be able to delay symptoms for years. In many cases, it isn’t discovered that a patient had Alzheimer’s until after they passed.
How Can You Build Your Cognitive Reserves?
You build your cognitive reserve by increase the rate at which your brain produces new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. You can also increase your cognitive reserve by increase the amount of connections between your brain cells. This can be done by exercising your brain, and exercising your body.
Exercise And Your Cognitive Reserve
Physical and mental exercise can boost your cognitive reserve. Research shows that aerobic exercise increases the rate at which your brain creates new neurons. 4 Only three hours of brisk walking per week increase your brain’s volume of gray matter. Aerobic exercise works best. You need to be elevating your heart rate. Exercising your heart causes more blood to reach your brain. Blood carries oxygen and glucose to your brain. Your brain uses oxygen and glucose as fuel for many of its functions.
Exercising your mind can also boost your cognitive reserve. For an activity to exercise your mind, it must be novel and challenging. When you challenge your brain with a novel activity, it must form completely new synaptic connections. And many times, it needs more brain cells to put the information together. Learning a new language is the best example I can give. Those who are bilingual outperform monolingual individuals on a variety of cognitive tests. 5 Of course, this discrepancy looks at averages. Every bilingual individual doesn’t outscore every monolingual individual.
Our brains crave novelty, complexity and variety, and playing games provides that stimulation. Engaging in new games that challenge cognitive areas such as critical thinking, memory or word skills promotes the creation of neural pathways that help maintain and improve brain function.
Exercising your heart, and exercising your mind will boost your cognitive reserve. You will build more neurons, and more connections between them. You won’t be lowering your risk of contracting Alzheimer’s, but you will be protecting yourself against the horrific symptoms that arise from the illness.