What is cognitive reserve?

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and

reasoning — to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life

and activities. Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions, and

their personalities may change.

Head thinking

You can think of cognitive reserve as your brain’s ability to improvise and find

alternate ways of getting a job done. It reflects how agile your brain is in pulling

in skills and capacities to solve problems and cope with challenges. Cognitive

reserve is developed by a lifetime of education and curiosity.

Get your copy of A Guide to Cognitive Fitness

A Guide to Cognitive Fitness

In this Special Health Report, Harvard Medical School doctors share a six-step

program that can yield important and lasting results. Together these “super 6”

can strengthen your intellectual prowess, promote your powers of recall, and

protect the brain-based skills that are essential for full, rewarding, and indep-

endent living. From simple and specific changes in eating to ways to challenge

your brain, this is guidance that will pay dividends for you and your future.

The concept of cognitive reserve originated in the late 1980s, when researchers

described individuals with no apparent symptoms of dementia who were

nonetheless found at autopsy to have brain changes consistent with advanced

Alzheimer’s disease. These individuals did not show symptoms of the disease

while they were alive because they had a large enough cognitive reserve to offset

the damage and continue to function as usual.

Since then, research has shown that people with greater cognitive reserve are

better able to stave off symptoms of degenerative brain changes associated with

dementia or other brain diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis,

or a stroke. A more robust cognitive reserve can also help you function better

for longer if you’re exposed to unexpected life events, such as stress, surgery, or

toxins in the environment. Such circumstances demand extra effort from your

brain—similar to requiring a car to engage another gear.

The heart of our brain health and cognitive fitness program, however, involves

lifestyle changes. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have identified six

cornerstones to any effective brain health and cognitive fitness program.

Step 1: Eat a plant-based diet

Step 2: Exercise regularly

Step 3: Get enough sleep

Step 4: Manage your stress

Step 5: Nurture social contacts

Step 6: Continue to challenge your brain

These factors are equal parts of a cohesive plan—they don’t work in isolation.

Simply eating more fiber or adding a morning walk to your routine isn’t enough

to forestall mental decline. Instead, exercise, diet, sleep, stress management,

social interaction, and mental stimulation work in concert to yield results.

For more on staying sharp as you age, read A Guide to Cognitive Fitness, a

Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

Dementia is not a specific disease but is rather a general term for the impaired

ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday

activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Though dementia

mostly affects older adults, it is not a part of normal aging.

Plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns focus on foods primarily from plants.

This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole

grains, legumes, and beans. It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan

and never eat meat or dairy.



  1. As someone who has recently witnessed a loved one struggle with dementia, this article about cognitive reserve resonates deeply with me. I never realized the importance of developing cognitive reserve through education and curiosity until now. It’s fascinating to think of our brain as a muscle that can be strengthened and protected through a plant-based diet, exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. This six-step program from Harvard Medical School seems like a manageable and effective way to promote cognitive fitness. Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

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