Cognitive Reserve Protects the Brain

Cognitive Reserve Protects the Brain

Last update: 21 February, 2022

Cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to cope with the damage it might endure. Regularly performing activities that exercise your cognitive abilities, like those involved in reading and math, can protect against the effects of old age and dementia, increase neuroplasticity, and establish new synaptic connections when others have deteriorated.

Over many years of study, it’s been observed that the same brain lesion doesn’t always have the same impact on different people. So we ask: what factors influence the onset of dementia and other neurological disorders?

Many therapies that are used to treat Alzheimer’s disease are based on the fact that the brain is plastic and can benefit from intellectual activity, even at a very old age and in cases of damage.

The Nun Study

One of the leaders in the study of cognitive reserve was a famous experiment performed by neurologist David Snowdon from the University of Kentucky in 1986, which he called “The Nun Study.” The experiment involved studying a group of nuns in a convent and observing the evolution of their cognitive functions, such as memory.

They collected data about these functions over a period of 17 years. When autopsies were performed on them after they passed away, it was found that the brain of one of the nuns, who never showed symptoms of dementia, showed the pathological characteristics of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. How could this be possible?

book, glasses, candle

Following the study’s results, other studies popped up that supported the theory that performing intellectually demanding activities can mitigate the effects of brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s and promote brain plasticity. Learning is a tool that can serve to strengthen the brain and make it more resistant to dementia.

What factors influence cognitive reserve?

There are many factors that are related to the acquisition of a good cognitive reserve. Among the most important are:

  • Education and interest in culture.
  • Performing a job that demands intellectual effort.
  • Having a wide network of social relationships.
  • Moderate daily physical exercise.
  • Reading regularly.
  • Doing complex intellectual activities like playing a musical instrument.
woman running

These are the principal factors described in the scientific literature, although other factors like diet have been considered as well. Moreover, learning new things, developing your creativity, trying to do the same task in a new way, and performing mental calculations are all everyday tasks that can increase the size of your cognitive reserve.

For human beings, it’s never too late to learn. Even though childhood is the period in which the brain is capable of absorbing the most information, we can always continue increasing our abilities. Remember, the volume of your cognitive reserve is not constant. We condition the size of it at an early age, only to continue shaping it over the years.

The effects of cognitive reserve

According to experts on the subject like Yaakov Stern, all of these factors favor the efficiency of our neuronal networks and compensation through alternative neuronal networks. In this way, we can protect ourselves against common alterations in cognitive functioning that occur after injuries and accidents.


On top of protecting against diseases like Alzheimer’s, slowing their progression, and even delaying their appearance, learning is also beneficial for recovery after a traumatic brain injury caused by an accident.

Despite the risk of suffering from dementia in old age, science has opened the door to a possible preventive solution that can make us less vulnerable to illnesses that appear more frequently as we get older.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.