Do you (or your parents) worry about losing your marbles when you grow older? Do you have a family history of Alzheimer's? Or, are there old people in your family who are so sharp that you hope you have their genes?
It's not so much about genes, researchers tell us. In an article in the NY Times, "Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile," Jane Brody reports on scientists who study why some people who, on autopsy reports showed findings of Alzheimer's disease, were cognitively fit when they died.What accounts for this discrepancy?
Scientists Drs. Nikolaos Scarmeas and Yaakov Stern of Columbia University Medical Center call it "cognitive reserve." It's the brain's ability to develop extra neurons and connections.
Both mental and physical exercise can contribute to cognitive reserve, they find. By challenging ourselves to learn new things, both body and mind, we are encouraging the development of more connections.
Well educated people probably amass more of this reserve by virtue of their being motivated to keep learning and exercising their faculties through their work and their desire for life-long learning, even at an old age.
Like developing oneself athletically, our brains thrive on challenge and newness. Doing the same old exercise routine at the gym, no matter how often we do it, is less likely to build more strength and agility, but varying that routine and participating in different kinds of physical exercises is much more effective. Similarly, mental challenges, such as learning new games, new languages, meeting new people, trying new experiences in work and play, can help us add to that "reserve."
Let me know what you do to add to your cognitive reserve to ensure that you'll live a long, interesting life and that your great-grandchildren will remember you as being as "sharp as a tack."