I recently listened to an interview between two neuroscientists and a group of elderly people, all over the age of 80. In the conversation, it became clear that some of these elders were losing their short-term memories and even experiencing early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. They spoke to the brain specialists about what they could do to maintain optimal brain function, even in old age.
The term that kept coming up was cognitive reserve.
Cognitive reserve is a term describing the mind’s resistance to damage to the brain. A 1988 study published in Annals of Neurology reports the post-mortem examination results of people who had Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, some participants with the disease did not manifest any of its symptoms. In other words, these people had the disease, but you couldn’t tell. Furthermore, the study showed that these persons had higher brain weights and a greater number of neurons compared to age-matched control specimens. Something was different in these people. They had achieved something that enabled them to stay strong and not lose their brain’s function.
But what was it?
They had developed cognitive reserve. They had built the capacity to stay younger and more vivacious than their counterparts, and they keep growing.
The Benefits of Helping Students Build Brain Reserve
Even though cognitive reserve and brain reserve are often used interchangeably, brain reserve is slightly different. Brain reserve can be described as the brain’s resilience, its ability to cope with increasing damage while still functioning adequately.
We all know what having reserve means. When we have reserve, we have backup supplies or resources beyond what is needed for the moment. If we have a food reserve on a camping trip, it usually means we’ve stashed some edibles away just in case we need extra. The field of medicine is now discovering something intriguing: Brains can have reserves too! In fact, brains that develop reserves can perform in optimal ways:
- They handle stress and pressure better.
- They have a higher capacity to be resilient.
- They can persevere for longer periods of time.
They have, in fact, greater neuroplasticity. Our brains, we’ve discovered, are not unlike plastic; they can flex and grow. Neural pathways can be developed even as we age. They are like rubber bands. They are most useful when they are stretched.
I believe this reserve can also happen in students.
Six Ways to Develop Reserve in Students
If elderly people can build brain reserve to help them function well late into their lives—could we not do this with teenagers? As I meet with educators, coaches, and parents, I’ve heard many of them mourn that their students don’t have the coping skills for the normal stressors of life. Too many have experienced young people who quit early, who don’t give their best effort, or who simply give up when the going got tough. As adults, they will need some grit, some brain reserve, for the challenges ahead of them.
So, how do we help students build that reserve? Based on what neuroscientists are recommending for the elderly, here are six activities for young people:
1. Cognitive activity
This can involve reading magazines, newspapers, books, and playing board games.
2. Volitional activity
This can involve taking on a new challenge requiring tenacity and will power.
3. Social activity
This can involve meeting new people and engaging them or serving those in need.
4. Physical activity
This can involve lifting, jumping, running, stretching, or performing physically.
5. Dietary activity
This usually involves a healthy diet of Mediterranean-style eating.
6. Lower alcohol consumption
Research shows reducing alcohol consumption limits your risk of brain aging.
As I examined the strategies associated with brain reserve, the idea that continued to come to mind was purpose. People keep their minds engaged and sharp when they live life on purpose. When I am intentional about a meaningful goal or mission, my brain remains astute and ready to take on other tasks that I may not even be excited about—even school tasks. Let’s go build some reserve in ourselves and our students.
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