“Use it or lose it" is a common expression we hear referring to physical and athletic abilities, maintaining hands-on skills, or the capabilities that come with formal education. Similar to how physical fitness and improves health and quality of life, brain fitness as a product of intellectual stimulation may reduce risk or help slow or lessen the impacts of Dementia.
Researchers and healthcare professionals use the terms “brain reserve” and “cognitive reserve” to describe the protective factors that brain anatomy and education have on the onset and progression of dementia. Often, researchers and clinicians do not distinguish between the two and use the term cognitive reserve. However, there are subtle differences between the two kinds of reserve. One can think of brain reserve as computer hardware and cognitive reserve as operating software.
Brain reserve, rather than reducing risk for Dementia, is brain resiliency or the ability to maintain adequate function in the face of increasing brain damage. In this case, researchers believe it is inborn brain architecture along with the number of neurons and connections between brain structures that create resiliency.
Physical methods such as using microscopes to examine pieces of brain tissue and medical imaging technologies to locate areas of high and low brain activity are the ways researchers assess brain reserve.
Cognitive reserve is the affect brain exercise has on making the brain better able to resist the behavioral and intellectual declines Dementia cause. Researchers and clinicians use behavioral assessments, such as the mini-mental status exam, to evaluate cognitive resiliency.
Brain fitness is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of age-related dementia. And should Dementia enter your life, brain-fitness may help to slow or lessen the impacts of the disease. Participating in physical activities such as baseball, flying radio control airplanes, hiking, or dancing requires both coordination and the ability to make split-second decisions.
Hands-on learning refers to making something or acquiring a new skill. Whether self-taught or with the assistance of a knowledgeable person learning how to build furniture, watercolor, construct a raised-bed garden, or to become proficient at using Photoshop, requires high-level thinking and problem solving, concentration, and creativity.
Levels of participation in both physical, hands-on activities and formal education reduce the risk for Dementia and make the brain better able to resist the behavioral and intellectual declines of Dementia.
Sadly, the progressive nature of Dementia eventually overwhelms the cognitive reserve that once supported adequate behaviors and abilities. When this happens, there is a rapid decline in cognition as well as in the ability to perform tasks of daily living such as getting dressed without assistance.
Contributor: Janet Yagoda Shagam, PhD, is a freelance medical and science writer and the author of “An Unintended Journey: A Caregiver's Guide to Dementia.” Available through Amazon.
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