Keep Your Brain Alive: Develop Your Cognitive Reserve

By Barbara Pierce

I’d just been hired by a retired scientist, Franz, to assist him.

On my first day, the 91-year-old invited me to read his emails so to become familiar with what he does. I was quickly impressed: he was writing for a science magazine, writing a book, helping a man begin a business, selling his inventions, having on-going arguments with his son and the manager of his retirement complex, evicting him for running a business there.

In all, involved in six different projects.

Me, I get discombobulated if I try to do more than three projects at a time. I have to put huge post-it notes on my wall outlining what I’m trying to do. I can’t imagine handling six at once!

The next day, I was to be totally astonished. Franz greeted me saying: “There’s something I need to tell you. I’ve been diagnosed with dementia.”

He showed me a letter from John Hopkins Medical Center advising him he had dementia.

That was totally unexpected. But what really stunned me: the letter was dated 11 years ago! He was still doing several things that required a reasonably functioning brain.

What good news! If a person with dementia can continue to lead a reasonably normal life for 11 years, I’d like to know how. I fear being diagnosed with this devastating disease. (There are many types of dementia; Alzheimer’s is the most common.)

If there’s a way to slow the decline, I’d like to know that way

This is what I discovered: Franz was a bright man and he had also developed a cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is a combination of your brain’s natural abilities and the additional brainpower that comes from challenging it.

The concept of cognitive reserve came about when researchers found many individuals with no signs of dementia, while autopsies of their brain showed they had advanced dementia. They functioned fine, though their brains showed changes that should have caused severe disability. Their cognitive reserve offset the damage so they continued to function.

Research found that, in a stimulating environment, the brain grows new cells and makes new connections, throughout our lives. This cognitive reserve offers protection. If dementia occurs, the decline in memory, the skills needed to plan and met goals and language skills is slower in people with cognitive reserve.

A psychologist I spoke with described it this way: “When you expose your brain to learning new things, it reacts by developing dendrites,” he said. “Dendrites are like the branches of a tree. You want to build up more and more dendrites so your brain looks like a jungle on a Caribbean island.”

“Dementia is a weed-whacker,” he explained. “The more your brain looks like that jungle, the more protection you have.”

A study by Mayo Clinic offers a good example. The investigators found that activities such as using a computer, playing games, reading books and engaging in crafts were associated with a 30%-50% decrease in the chances of developing mild cognitive impairment.

Studies show there’s a positive link between having an active social life and a decreased risk of cognitive decline.

The concept of neurobics sounds fun. The scientifically based workout for the brain, aerobics for the brain, was developed by the late Lawrence Katz, Ph.D., at Duke University and is spelled out in his book “Keep Your Brain Alive.” (Or

Neurobics suggests that you use your senses in unexpected fun new ways; novelty and complexity are the keys. Shake up your routine; routines are brain deadening; they’re automatic, so we aren’t using our brains. Vary your routines to grow new brain cells.

For example, wave a whiff of vanilla or peppermint under your nose to wake up in the morning. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Take a shower with your eyes closed. Open the car windows and notice the smells and sounds. Take a different route — anything to vary your usual routine.

To be of benefit, involve your senses in a new way. To stand out from the background of your routine daily activities, the experience should be unusual, fun, surprising and involving your senses in new ways.

Engage in things like reading aloud to your partner, a friend or your pet. The action of speaking and hearing boosts your brain. Start a new hobby; vacation in a new place; learn a foreign language. Take a workshop on something you’ve always wanted to learn more about. SUNY Upstate Oasis offers many classes online.

If you have a free afternoon, pull out a map and stab something within a 50-mile radius; get in the car and head there. Explore the area, walk around, talk to the locals.

Socialize: people with the best-preserved mental capacities are those with active social networks.

We’re rich in history. Explore the Erie Canal, the salt industry, the zoo. Visit, talk to people.

It’s never too late to take action to keep your brain alive.

What will you start doing today?

Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at