By Pattie Gaudio, Dementia Services Educator at Williamsburg Landing
November 30, 2022
As we age, almost everything in our body slows down. The brain is no different. With functional MRIs (fMRI), neurologists can look beyond the structure of the brain and see what areas are active during different thought processes.
Studies have looked at various age groups from the 20s through 80s, and results show that across the board some regions of the brain naturally shrank or slowed as aging occurred. Included are the frontal area, responsible for our executive functioning of logic, attention and personality; the hippocampus, through which all of our memories are processed; and, our processing speed, or the time it takes for thought processes, retrieval of words, and reactions to occur. In other words, the word you’re looking for is in there, but it takes more effort to find and get it out!
The good news is that neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to re-wire itself, and increase connections with other nerve cells in response to stimulation, allows us to take conscious steps to compensate for these natural age-related changes with keeping our mind and body active.
Another key concept to be aware of is "cognitive reserve." Cognitive reserve is built throughout our lifetime. It refers to the amount of brain cell connection networks assembled through the years by using your brain and engaging in things such as education, work, hobbies and socialization. Studies have shown that people with a higher cognitive reserve do not exhibit symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia or Multiple Sclerosis until later in the disease process. As brain cells are actively dying, the increase in connections previously established by keeping the mind active compensates for the loss of connections so the person can function more normally longer into the disease.
Studies have also shown that cognitive reserve can continue to increase and be beneficial for people who exhibit mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and into the early and middle stages of dementia, although at a slower rate.
Increasing Cognitive Reserve
What increases cognitive reserve? Asked another way, what should you do to keep your mind active and support brain connections?
- Learn new things, or do things you don't ordinarily do! Take a course and learn new information. Take up a new hobby. Try a new language, play a musical instrument (I understand Ukuleles are rather popular these days). You can even try to do things with your non-dominant hand, like brushing your teeth or eating.
- Socialize, socialize, and socialize some more! It can be very inviting--and too easy--to stay home. However, engaging with other people can stimulate all areas of your brain, from visual to language to thinking skills, focusing, and observing even non-verbal cues—a win-win way to promote cognitive reserve and keep your mind active.
- Do physical exercises. That keeps the mind active! Studies have shown that physical exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical that stimulates nerve cell growth. Combining physical exercise while incorporating thinking exercises has been shown to have a more positive effect on the brain than either activity alone!
- Engage in various brain-stimulating puzzles such as language crosswords, mathematics, visual exercises, memory, and logic. Come to our monthly “Maintain Your Brain” classes here, each second Thursday, every month. (The classes are also lots of fun.)
Whatever you choose to do, engage in activities that you enjoy--that interest and motivate you; that provide momentum to keep your mind active. Williamsburg Landing and the surrounding Williamsburg area offers many wonderful opportunities for you to engage, enjoy and keep your mind active!