Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Beyond Brain Games

Reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by growing your "cognitive reserve."

Source: popaukropa/BigStock

The offerings in the billion-dollar brain game industry are compelling. On the surface, it seems logical that improved performance on a computer memory task could lead to better daily memory skills.

The problem, however, is that even if memory on a computer game improves (just as it does when we play most any game), this improvement generally doesn’t transfer to real-world tasks, such as the ability to remember a grocery list or the name of the new person you just met. This and other cautions about brain games were publicized in a 2014 consensus paper from the Stanford University Center on Longevity in which over 70 scientists concluded that there is no evidence that playing brain games prevents Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

This doesn’t mean that time spent playing brain games is wasted, especially if that time would be spent doing idle activities that might not be as engaging or enjoyable. But it does mean that there are more effective ways to spend our time if we want to minimize the risk of Alzheimer’s.

In the first three weeks of the 4-week Boost Your Brain in 2018 plan, we reviewed the importance of three science-backed strategies that have been shown to minimize the risk of Alzheimer’s: cardiovascular exercise, the MIND diet, and stress management. Today, we round out Week 4 by learning how to increase the number of connections between our neurons in order to strengthen our cellular shield against Alzheimer’s (a.k.a. our “cognitive reserve”).

“Cognitive reserve” is a concept that was developed in the late 1980s by researchers who were surprised to see that some people with the cellular abnormalities of Alzheimer’s (revealed at autopsy) did not express symptoms of Alzheimer’s in daily life. By retrospectively analyzing their early histories, it soon became clear that they had been more actively engaged in learning throughout their lifetime than those who did express symptoms. It was as if the extra neuronal connections that were created through active learning allowed them to compensate for or “work around” the cellular abnormalities of Alzheimer’s.

This finding has been noted in super agers (older adults in their 60s-80s with memory similar to people decades younger), and in the popular nun study, in which hundreds of nuns have been followed since 1986 to study the variables that predict eventual Alzheimer’s. Interestingly, some nuns who had both a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s-related cellular abnormalities were able to ward off memory problems if they engaged in a pattern of active learning over their lifetimes.

Educational level and occupational complexity are powerful contributors to cognitive reserve. But cognitive reserve may also be increased through active engagement in a wide variety of other activities, from watching educational television to visiting a museum to learning a new language. In fact, most people with high cognitive reserve have been involved in a variety of activities. An analysis of the activities that promote cognitive reserve suggests a few common characteristics, captured by the acronym SAVE.

The best “cognitive reserve” activities are:

Slightly challenging. To grow the strongest neuronal connections, do something you are not already an expert at. The tasks should be slightly above your current abilities, but not so difficult that they are frustrating. Seek out “head-scratching moments” that require you to actively think through new information and problem solve.

Absorbing. You should feel engaged and interested in the tasks you do so that you spend more time doing them.

Varied. Mix up the activities you do so that you grow neuronal connections in different areas of your brain.

Enlarge your knowledge. Choose activities that make you a “beginner again” and teach you new information. For example, if you are already an expert at crosswords, you are likely to grow new neuronal connections if you do different types of tasks rather than just more crosswords.

The best cognitive reserve activities are different for everyone, given that everyone has different interests. Examples include learning a new language, a new route to work, a new gardening technique, or new information about a topic you love, watching educational television, and any other task that is Slightly challenging, Absorbing, Varied, and Enlarges your knowledge. You can even integrate SAVE characteristics into your existing activities. For example, to challenge your memory during a meeting, you could quiz yourself on the details of a new issue, or try to remember the names of new people who were discussed.

A 2015 Mayo Clinic study of older adults (average age 87) demonstrated the breadth of activities that help minimize cognitive decline. Results showed that the risk of developing memory problems was decreased by 73 percent among people who engaged in artistic activities in middle and later life (e.g.. drawing, painting, sculpting), by 55 percent for people who socialized in middle and later life, by 53 percent for people used computers in late life, and by 45 percent for people who did craft activities in middle and late life (e.g. woodworking, ceramics, sewing). Researchers concluded that memory-preserving activities should continue through later life.

Strengthening your cognitive reserve could be a powerful way to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. By consistently using the four tips in the Boost Your Brain in 2018 plan, you can be empowered to maximize the health of your brain for years to come.


Roberts, R.O., Cha, R.H., Mielke, M.M., Geda, Y.E., Boeve, B.F., Machulda, M.M., Knopman, D.S., & Petersen, R.C. (2015). Risk and protective factors for cognitive impairment in persons aged 85 years and older. Neurology,84(18):1854-61

More from Michelle Braun Ph.D., ABPP-CN
More from Psychology Today