Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Build Up Your Cognitive Reserves to Lower Your Risk of Dementia

Not everyone with a genetic predisposition or other risk factors has to succumb.

Key points

  • Even if you are predisposed to dementia, you may be able to prevent or delay the condition.
  • Pursuing intellectual stimulation throughout your life may help keep your mind resilient.
  • Diverse interests and other challenges might help you fight dementia.
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay, used with permission
Why some people develop dementia and some don't is a puzzle to be solved.
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay, used with permission

One of many questions that puzzles dementia researchers is why amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease can build up in the brains of people who show no signs of dementia, while others with similar plaque growth have obvious declines in their memory and thinking abilities. An investigative study by University of London researchers may provide a clue.

Using data from a national survey of health and development that began in 1946, the researchers looked at the cognitive reserves of more than 1,000 study participants at 69 years of age. Cognitive reserve measures the resilience of the brain to damage or disease; the higher your cognitive reserve the better you can fight off symptoms of dementia or bear injuries to the brain.

The researchers looked back at specific genetic and lifestyle influences throughout the participants' lives. These included childhood cognition measured at 8 years old, education level at 26 years old, involvement in leisure activities at 43 years old, results of a reading test at age 53, and results of a cognitive exam at 69. (The reading test was also designed to measure overall acquired lifetime learning, not just learning through education and occupation.) The researchers compared the results to determine which, if any, of the factors appeared to affect the cognitive outcome of those who reached 69 years of age.

What the researchers found was that those participants with higher cognitive scores in childhood and higher reading ability in later midlife were associated with a higher score on the cognitive test taken at age 69. Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher educational background scored higher than participants with no education beyond high school. Those participants who engaged in at least six different leisure activities, such as gardening, volunteer work, learning a new language, joining a book club, having a high degree of social interaction, and adult education classes, scored higher than those who participated in four or fewer activities. And those with higher skilled professional level jobs scored higher than participants with lower skilled jobs.

These researchers also investigated the role of the APOE gene, specifically the APOE e4 allele (known to identify one’s genetic risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and possibly getting it at a younger-than-average age). While they found that the allele was associated with lower scores on the cognitive exam given at age 69, it did not change the association between childhood cognition and the state of cognition in later years. When a participant had high levels of cognitive reserve and scored high on their reading test, the presence of APOE e4 was insignificant.

According to this study, building up cognitive reserves over time by pursuing higher education or other types of intellectually challenging activities, and staying mentally, socially, and physically active, may help prevent or delay symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline. The more active your brain throughout your lifetime, the more you build up your cognitive reserves, and the better your chances of staving off symptoms of dementia.


Almeida-Meza P, Richards M, Cadar D. Moderating role of cognitive reserve markers between childhood cognition and cognitive aging: Evidence from the 1946 UK birth cohort. August 3, 2022.

American Academy of Neurology. "Education, job, and social life may help protect brain from cognitive decline." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 August 2022.

More from Susan McQuillan
More from Psychology Today
More from Susan McQuillan
More from Psychology Today