Cognitive reserve, the term used to describe the mechanism by which a person's mind can compensate for damage to their brain, has become a buzzword among seniors and their caregivers, thanks to its connection to one of the most infamous issues of modern aging: dementia.
Research indicates that people who have solid stores of cognitive reserve are generally less likely to exhibit the classic signs of dementia—short-term memory loss, difficulty multitasking, etc.—even if their brain scans indicate mental damage. This is because cognitive reserve effectively makes the mind stronger and more nimble, enabling it to come up with ways to compensate for disease-related loss of functioning.
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Seek out and embrace new challenges; your brain will thank you
Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., founder of Cognifit, and co-author (with Collins Hemingway) of "Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom," feels that finding ways to consistently engage the brain with new and stimulating experiences is the key to cultivating more cognitive reserve and staving off mental decline.
No matter what age they are, Breznitz stresses that starting a cognitive fitness regimen may help a person ward off the symptoms of dementia. "Our cognitive skills are not fixed. At all ages the brain has the ability to respond to new information and new stimuli," he says.
And caregivers shouldn't hesitate to encourage their loved ones to take part in mentally stimulating activities as well. Of course, you may have to scale them to fit the elder's current cognitive capacity. Some of the suggestions listed in this article may not be appropriate for elderly parents, but would benefit caregiver's own cognitive function.
While commenting on a previous article on cognitive reserve, Jeannegibbs, one of AgingCare.com's most active members, discusses exposing her loved one to new experiences: "Whether or not it really helps mitigate the dementia, it has made our life richer. It's also a no risk strategy as far as I'm concerned—until the person with dementia truly can't take stimulation anymore."
More confusion now may mean less confusion later
According to Breznitz, the twin traits of novelty and variety are invaluable when coming up with activities to enhance cognitive reserve. Sudoku and crosswords alone won't work, he says. You've got to get creative when coming up with ways to stimulate the brain.
In the same way elite athletes and their trainers use the concept of muscle confusion (varying the types and duration of exercises to expose weaknesses and challenge muscles in new ways) to maximize their physical fitness, switching up the things you do to engage your mental muscle can help maximize your mental fitness.
"Challenging the brain helps maintain cognitive vigor and capacity. And maintaining our cognitive health maintains our quality of life," Breznitz says.
He offers a few suggestions of things practically anyone can do to beef up their brainpower:
- Work on your weaknesses: "Since novelty and variety are the keys to battling routines and enhancing cognitive ability, engaging out minds outside of our established domains would be more beneficial," says Breznitz. For example, if you're really good with numbers, but not such a big literary buff, try picking up a classic such as Moby Dick and see if you can read the whole thing. You may find that you're actually a closet book-lover.
- Take the road less traveled: Take a different route when going to the grocery store or driving your elderly loved one to the doctor's office. Because we travel them with such frequency, driving routes are one of the biggest routines we have—and one of the easiest to practice breaking. Just make sure you leave a little earlier than normal to give yourself some time in case you get lost or your new route takes longer than you anticipate.
- Dominate your non-dominant hand: Pretty much everyone has a dominant hand that they use to eat, write, and perform other daily activities. Mix things up by recruiting your neglected hand to some activities. Your non-dominant appendage might not be up to the task of transcribing a beautiful handwritten letter, so you may want to start off small by holding your fork in the other hand during mealtimes. Take it slow and try to avoid getting frustrated. Remember, challenging exercises like this may make you feel foolish, but you're actually helping to preserve your mental capacity.
- Change your point of view: You don't have to limit yourself to academic or physical challenges. Emotional experiments may serve the dual purpose of helping your personal life as well as your mental health. For example, say you're in a fight with your sister over who should take care of your mother's finances. Since you're mom's primary caregiver, you feel that you should be in charge of the money. But your sister, who has experience as an actuary, feels that her knowledge can help make your mother's nest egg last longer. Try to really listen to what your sister has to say, and attempt to approach the issue from her point of view. Forcing yourself to get out of your own head and examine the problem from a different perspective will tax your brain and, as an added benefit, you may find that empathizing with your sister's position helps the two of you come to an agreeable compromise.
Be a curious cat
- Go back to school: Taking a class on something that is interesting to you is a great way to flex your mental muscles, according to Breznitz. And, thanks to the Internet, a time-crunched, cash-strapped caregiver can enjoy free lectures without leaving their house. There are a number of different websites that offer video lectures on everything from organic chemistry to classical mythology, taught by professors from such celebrated institutions as Stanford and Harvard University. Apple also has a program called, iTunesU, that can be downloaded to any computer and has a collection of college courses that you can bookmark and stream for no charge.
- Take a trip: Traveling to someplace you've never been is a fantastic way to fire up dormant neurons. If caring for your loved one means that you don't have the opportunity to be a part of the jet-set, don't worry, you can still get away. Breznitz says that simple activities like walking a new path along the beach, or in a local park can be enough to stimulate your mind.
- Explore your strengths: Attending to your mental and physical weaknesses is likely to produce a greater cognitive challenge. But, Breznitz feels that it's important not to neglect your strengths. "Investment in one's strengths is needed for both self-image (sense of success) and for a more in-depth understanding of problems," he says. Expanding upon an existing talent can be a great way to boost your self-esteem while challenging your brain. If you've always been an avid reader and want to branch out into writing, set aside time each day to practice. You can buy books of daily writing prompts at your local books store, or go online and get a few for free. Who knows, you may find your inner romance novelist.
- Get a hobby: Have you always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, learn a new language, etc., but you just never got around to doing it? Why not start now?