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Why learning a new skill in adulthood builds "cognitive reserve" to protect against dementia

By Medisys on February 02 2018 | Brain Health, Mental Wellness

To optimize your memory and thinking skills as you age, it’s important to exercise both your body and your brain. Studies suggest that engaging in mentally stimulating leisure activities during middle and late adulthood helps your brain build cognitive reserve, which acts as a buffer against the wear and tear of aging. Building these cognitive reserves helps maintain optimal cognitive functioning throughout your life and may even help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

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The rule of thumb for cognitive exercise is to engage in new, challenging, and varied cognitive activities. In addition to finding something that challenges your brain, make sure the activities are also interesting and engaging. Just like with physical exercise, you need to find something you can enjoy over the long term.

Traditional methods for cognitive stimula­tion include reading, completing crossword puzzles (especially the New York Times crossword), taking a course, learning a new dance, learning a new sport, or learning a new language. More recently, smartphone apps and online games have made it even easier to get in your daily brain challenges – but do they really work?

There are numerous online “brain training” programs that advertise the ability to enhance your cognitive functioning, and many involve targeted exercises to train certain functions such as attention, memory, or speed of thinking.

As the market for brain-training software continues to grow, it is essential to know the science behind these programs. Before purchasing a program, find out the answers to these important questions: does the cognitive training generalize beyond the trained task, or similar tasks? In other words, does a person simply get better at doing the cognitive exercises on the computer, over time, reflecting a practice effect, or does the training generalize into improvement in day-to-day functioning? And is there evidence of endurance of the effect?

Also, ask yourself whether you are already spending considerable time on the computer. If so, a non-computer activity might be better for your brain, and provide more variety. Examples are learning tai chi, or playing a musical instrument.

Of the available online brain training programs, some have more scientific evidence to back them than others. One program we recommend based on current research is a program called Posit Science, which has shown preliminary evidence for both general-izability and endurance of effects. You can go directly to the Posit Science website and start training your brain (BrainHQ.com), or come in and talk to your Brain Health program staff to set up a tailored cognitive exercise program that is right for you.

But exercising your brain isn't all about learning something new - physical exercise has been shown to have a significant positive benefit on brain health too!