Socializing, taking classes and exercising may boost your brain’s cognitive reserve and stave off memory and thinking problems down the road, a new study suggests.
Cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s ability to withstand the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s and not show signs of decline.
The best way to boost your cognitive reserve?
“Never stop being curious, and learn something new or pick up a new hobby,” said study author Pamela Almeida-Meza, a doctoral student at University College London. “Stay active and connected, exercise, go on daily walks, keep in touch with your family and prioritize visiting your friends.”
For the study, researchers looked at genes and lifestyle factors among 1,184 people born in 1946 in the United Kingdom. Folks took cognitive tests when they were 8 and again at 69.
Everyone in the study received a cognitive reserve score that combined their education level at 26, participation in enriching leisure activities at 43, and job up to age 53. Reading ability at age 53 was tested as an additional measure of overall lifelong learning.
The cognitive test that folks took at age 69 had a maximum total score of 100, and the average score for this group was 92.
Folks with higher childhood cognitive abilities, a higher cognitive reserve score and advanced reading ability performed better on the cognitive test at age 69, the study showed.
People with higher education levels also fared better than their counterparts who did not have a formal education.
Folks who engaged in six or more leisure activities, such as adult education classes, clubs, volunteer work, social activities and gardening, scored higher than people who engaged in four or fewer leisure activities.
What’s more, those participants who had a professional or intermediate level job scored higher on the cognitive test at age 29 than those in lesser-skilled positions.
Previous studies have shown that people with low scores on cognitive tests as kids are more likely to have a steeper cognitive decline with advancing age, but this may not be the case after all.
“The finding suggests that a mentally, socially and physically active lifestyle at midlife can offset the negative contribution of low childhood cognition to older age cognitive state,” Almeida-Meza said.
The APOE4 gene, which increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, was linked with lower scores on the cognitive test at age 69, but participants with high or low childhood cognition scores showed similar rates of mental decline with age, regardless of their APOE4 status.
The study appears in the Aug. 3 issue of Neurology.
The findings show that genes aren’t destiny when it comes to risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, said Lei Yu, an associate professor at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.
“Cognitive performance in old age is not fully determined by what was inherited from our parents,” said Yu, who reviewed the new study.
“Older adults who are actively engaged in cognitive [e.g., reading, or playing checkers, cards, puzzles or board games], social [e.g., spending time with family members or friends, going to church, volunteering or participating in group activities] and physical activities [e.g., regular exercise] are more likely to maintain late-life cognition, even in the presence of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” he said.
Michal Schnaider Beeri is a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. She co-authored an editorial accompanying the study.
“The study findings support the relevance of a lifelong investment in the accumulation of cognitive reserve for the maintenance of healthy cognition later in life,” she said.
“From a public health and societal perspective, there may be broad long-term benefits in investing in high education, widening opportunities for leisure activities, and proactively providing cognitively challenging activities for individuals at less skilled occupations,” Schnaider Beeri said.
And, she said, it’s never too late to start boosting your cognitive reserve.
“Although younger brains learn faster and more effectively, older and even [much] older brains have plasticity and the capacity to learn,” Schnaider Beeri noted.
She recommended getting out of your comfort zone and learning a new language or skill, or a new musical instrument.
“Feeding our brains with intellectual engagement and effort should be seen as a lifelong process to maintain healthy brain aging,” Schnaider Beeri said.
The Alzheimer’s Association offers more tips on how to stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
SOURCES: Pamela Almeida-Meza, doctoral student, University College London, Lei Yu, PhD, associate professor, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Chicago; Michal Schnaider Beeri, PhD, professor, psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, Neurology, Aug. 3, 2022