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Conquering the Great Cognitive Reserve

Quick:  What’s the Cognitive Reserve?  A vast wildlife sanctuary in western Canada?  A deep underwater canyon off the Australian coast?  A central African safari-free  zone?  No, no and no – but you knew that.  The term cognitive reserve actually refers to the mechanism by which one’s mind finds a way to compensate for brain damage, and it’s a topic that’s trending like mad among savvy seniors and their caregivers.  Why all the excitement about what sounds like a pretty unpleasant conversation?  Because cognitive reserve is linked to one of our most daunting challenges — dementia.

In much the same way that trainers and athletes use a form of ‘muscle confusion’  to hone their fitness routines, giving the brain a good, challenging workout helps develop and maintain mental fitness.  Muscle confusion is predicated on variety, changing up the type and duration of exercises in order to spot weaknesses and encourage muscles to take on new roles and responsibilities.  According to Shlomo Breznitz, PhD, co-author of Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, 

Challenging the brain helps maintain cognitive vigor and capacity.  And maintaining our cognitive health maintains our quality of life.

Dr. Breznitz also observes the following:

Our cognitive skills are not fixed.  At all ages the brain has the ability to respond to new information and new stimuli.

He also believes, and much research supports him in this, that finding ways to engage the brain with new and fresh experiences is vital to adding to one’s supply of cognitive reserve, thereby warding off mental decline.  Studies have shown that those individuals who have stocked up on their cognitive reserves over the years are, as a rule, less likely to show the classic tell-tale signs of dementia, the short-term memory loss, the confusion and so on.  Those with good reserves have stronger, more flexible and responsive minds and can thus come up with all sorts of clever ways to compensate for disease or illness-related loss of mental functioning.  Nifty, right?

Any age can play, too, — it’s never to early to start putting up your emergency supplies — and both caregivers and their patients benefit by taking part in mentally stimulating activities.  And it’s not just about crossword puzzles and clever phone games and apps, either.  Variety is key — in fact, you have to be creative to stay creative.

Here are some ideas to get you started.  One way to look at it, according to the fine people at Agingcare.com, is that more confusion now may mean less confusion later!

Challenge yourself

  • Face your weaknesses and get to work on them: Dr. Breznitz suggests that “since novelty and variety are the keys to battling routines and enhancing cognitive ability, engaging our minds outside of our established domains would be more beneficial”.  Say you’re a numbers guy, great with accounts and spreadsheets.  Step out of your comfort zone and pick up a literary classic, War and Peace or Joyce’s Ulysses.  Try to read the whole thing.  You may enjoy it more than you expected you would,  but even if you struggle your way through, your mind is that much richer for the effort.
  • Dominate your non-dominant hand: Remember trying this when you were a kid?  Remember how awful your handwriting looked when you switched hands?  But it’s good to mix it up.  Try using a fork the other way around, or brush your hair with the ‘wrong’ hand.  Stay with it. You’ll  slow down and drop stuff, and you may get frustrated or feel really silly.  The challenges, however, are good for you and actually help your mental capacity stay sharp. Try chopsticks with the other hand, by the way – now that’s fun!  You and your patient might have a little friendly competition to see who gets the hang of things first.
  • Take the road less traveled: Change up your driving routines.  Deliberately take a different route to the shops or while getting your elderly loved one to a doctor’s appointment.   We drive everywhere and almost always take the same routes so this is perfect place to try out new ways to do familiar things.  You might give yourself a bit of extra time in case you get lost along the way, but if you do get lost, find your way out by using just your wits (no technological gadgets allowed!).
  • Change your point of view:  This one is tough.  Seeing the world through the eyes or hearts of others is hard, but it’s probably the only way we truly grow.  Keep in mind that there are three aspects to this: an intellectual point of view, a physical point of view, and an emotional point of view.  It’s hard to listen to (or submit to) another person’s opinions about something we feel equally strongly about, but so very differently.  But when we sincerely approach something from another person’s point of view, we push our brains into new territory.  We might even tap into some empathy or compassion we forgot was in there!  We learn to compromise.  We broaden our bases.  It’s all good, ultimately.  Our brains get stronger and stronger!

Be curious

  • Get yourself back to the classroom: Whether you sign up for courses at your local community college or a professional development training center, or go online for video lectures, book reviews, craft classes or whatever, there are all sorts of ways to remain mentally engaged and have fun while doing it.
  • Travel: Here again, there are all sorts of possibilities to get those neurons fired up!  You could jump on a plane, of course, and fly off to distant lands.  But you can also hike in a local park or simply take different paths around a nearby lake or even walk around your own neighborhood by new directions.  Just stimulate your senses.
  • Get a hobby: Learn to play the drums; practice speaking Chinese or German; pick up a paint brush or some knitting needles; master homemade Greek pastries.  What have you always wanted to learn to do?  Give it a try!
  • Explore your strengths, too:  Working on your weaknesses will surely generate a positive cognitive challenge, but you need to feel success, too.  So expand on your existing talents.  Keep reading.  Start writing a blog.  Think about exhibiting your quilts or photos.  Investing in your strengths keeps your problem-solving skills sharp.  Sharp skills — strong minds.

Special thanks to The Community of Caregivers Forum, Agingcare.com.

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