An important concept that is crucial to the understanding of cognitive health is known as cognitive reserve. Think of this as your brain's ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done.
In reporting on cognitive reserve, Harvard University uses the analogy that just like a powerful car that enables you to engage another gear and suddenly accelerate to avoid an obstacle, your brain can change the way it operates. With the end result of creating added resources to cope with challenges.
Evidence is growing that cognitive reserve develops over a lifetime of education and curiosity to help your brain better cope with any failures or declines it faces.
The concept of cognitive reserve originated in the late 1980s. At a time when researchers described individuals with no apparent symptoms of dementia who were nonetheless found at autopsy to have brain changes consistent with advanced Alzheimer's disease.
These individuals did not show symptoms of the disease while they were alive because they had a large enough cognitive reserve to offset the damage and continue to function as usual.
Since then, research has shown that people with greater cognitive reserve are better able to stave off symptoms of degenerative brain changes associated with dementia or other brain diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke. A more robust cognitive reserve can also help you function better for longer if you're exposed to unexpected life events, such as stress, surgery, or toxins in the environment. Such circumstances demand extra effort from your brain—similar to requiring a car to engage another gear.
As a starting point, Harvard University research says that it is important to remember that having a healthy body is key to a healthy brain.
They list six elements that can help to improve brain power.
- Eating a plant based diet.
- Exercising regularly.
- Getting enough sleep.
- Managing stress.
- Nurturing social contacts.
- Continuing to challenge your brain.
The Harvard researchers emphasize the importance of cultivating these factors together, as they reinforce each other and lead to optimal brain and cognitive health.
The first four factors – concerning diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction – can be seen as indirect support for cognitive health. Together, they represent the “healthy mind in a healthy body” principle.
The last two factors, social interaction and challenging the brain, involve cognition more directly. Hence concepts like belonging and engagement with others is critical.
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Date Published: December 2022
To be reviewed: January 2026