It’s never too late to build brain reserves

The manifestations of aging depend not only on the aging process itself, but also on the reserves we have accumulated to help our body withstand time’s inevitable losses. This is no different in the brain department. It seems that the chances of dementia are lowest in those with bigger brains and better education and in people whose work has required more mental activity. Although most of these important neural connections form when we are young, it is never too late to build additional brain reserves. Even in aging adults, the brain can adapt to form new connections and generate new cells. A long-term commitment to keeping active – both mentally and physically – can delay the impacts of aging on the brain and give us a good excuse to have a lot of fun! By contrast, each additional hour of watching mind-numbing television seems to make dementia more likely as you age.

What’s the best way to build brain reserves?

Again, there is no one answer for everyone. Some will prefer solving crosswords, playing chess, bridge, Sudoku or other mind-games. Crafts, reading, learning new languages or skills can all be stimulating activities. Join a club or society and stay socially active as well as mentally active. The trick is to find something challenging that you can enjoy and commit to it. Try to avoid fads, which may look like fun, but are rarely sustainable. A number of simple exercises are available that will help give you a mental edge in the short term, regardless of your age. Whether any of these can keep you from developing dementia is unknown; what is probably more relevant is such exercises increase your chances of reaching old age with as many marbles left as possible. As the number of marbles you have appears to determine the threshold of almost every degenerative problem, it’s surely worth giving your brain a regular workout.

Assessing brain function

  • Questionnaires – batteries of cognitive tests of thinking power are widely used to examine the impact and rate of aging. There are many simple standardized tests now available, many of them computerized, with alternate forms to allow accurate followup over time. The most comprehensive tests assess emotional intelligence, depression, anxiety, stress, trauma (head trauma and emotional trauma), sleep, neurological disorders, substance use and personality, and then compares your results with others of the same age and gender.
  • Brain imaging techniques – in use today such as Computerized Tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), functional MRI (fMRI), Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography (SPECT), Positron Emission Tomography (PET). Each can tell you about both structure and function.
  • Quantified electroencephalogram (QEEG) – assesses brainwave activity using small electrodes placed on the scalp, which it compares to healthy people of the same age and gender. This can identify the extent and location of abnormal brain function or brain disease. QEEG has the advantage of being non-invasive, painless, safe and dynamic (brain function is seen in real time). It is also quick, usually requiring no more than 90 minutes to prepare and administer.

Last Reviewed 02/Mar/2014


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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals