Your Brain’s MVP: Brain reserve and Cognitive reserve

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Brain reserve and cognitive reserve are assets in the brain that help us battle age-related cognitive decline and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And they develop throughout the lifespan via cognitive activities and lifestyle choices. The reserves buffer against brain damage and also enhance functioning with or without damage. That’s why – our most valuable player (MVP). Our mental health, cognitive abilities, and quality of life depend on the “volume” and “efficiency” of these assets. Let’s take a look at what they are.

Look at cognitive reserve and brain reserve as a literal biological reserve of extras that fortify and power up the brain in ways that delay brain aging and buffer against other neurological problems like Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

But they are not just about battling brain diseases; they are about compensating and offsetting problems by tapping into the reserve. The reserve enhances thinking, perception, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility.

There is one historical observation across cultures that led to the understanding of this reserve. Sportspeople, highly trained academics and musicians, farmers, daily wage laborers, homemakers, chess players, etc., can all succumb to Alzheimer’s. But, those with more education tended to get it later or sometimes even fully offset the damage it does.

Alzheimer’s disease is a poster child neuro-degenerative disease – the disease, with its complicated origin story of problematic gene activity and malfunctioning biology, weakens cognitive abilities like remembering, attention, memory formation, perception, and problem-solving. Researchers, most notably Dr. Robert Katzman[1], observed that the level of formal education and high amounts of cognitive activities throughout life created strong defenses against the diseases and provided compensatory mechanisms to offset the cognitive decline.

Now, the brain is a highly interconnected organ with 80-100 billion neurons and 80-100 billion supporting cells called glial cells. Genes are programmed to organize the brain in a certain way, but life and learning make granular changes within that arrangement, so everyone gets a unique brain if you zoom into it. Throughout the lifespan, the interconnected cells connect via synapses that talk to each other and represent learning. The synapses connect between the dendrites of 1 cell with the axon terminal of another most commonly (but there are other types of connection – axon to cell body, dendrite to cell body, and axon to axon). The neural “wiring” happens via the axons with a coating called the myelin sheath – a fatty layer meant to improve electrochemical signals between cells – and highly depends on skill development and cognitive engagement.

By User: Dhp1080 – “Anatomy and Physiology” by the US National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program ., CC BY-SA 3.0,

This organized and malleable system starts breaking down as we age or have chronic stress or trauma or develop a disease pathology. Cognitive and brain reserve serve 2 functions then:

  1. Protect the organization and connections
  2. Find alternate connections and use them when some others deteriorate (this also means using different problem-solving methods or coping with poor memory using strategies)

People in blue zones – regions with many 100-year-olds – typically have a lot of brain and cognitive reserve through their active and engaged lives. It’s how they, and those from non-blue-zone areas have intact memory, sharp cognitive functioning, and live physically independent lives even after 80 years of age. It allows them to “super-age.”

The entire reserve, whose source is much more than education, is loosely separated as cognitive and brain reserve based on how it is formed and used.

Cognitive reserve is the skill library, knowledge base, and cognitive skills that depend on quick, real-time use of neural circuits and activity patterns. It doesn’t just buffer against damage but enhances overall cognition. It includes the entire collection of surplus thinking strategies and learning that help us solve problems and adapt to the environment. Learning new ways to memorize and thinking about patterns with music or art are forms of cognitive reserve.

Brain reserve is a set of physical quantities like brain volume, number of neurons, number of synapses and axons, myelin sheath, neurotransmitter availability and use, and neuron density. Brain reserve typically occurs in the number of neural connections and alternate pathways formed through learning that aren’t necessary but great to have as a backup. It’s the first line of defense – a fortification for the brain with a good “moat”.

Cognitive reserve and brain reserve preserve cognitive function and brain health in the presence of pathological damage in the brain from disease, trauma, aging, or stress.

Research evidence and practical insights

  1. People who engage in fun, leisure activities and rich social interactions[2] tend to delay cognitive decline from Dementia (and Alzheimer’s). They are at a lower risk of getting the disease and also tolerate/offset the damage done by the disease if it progresses.
  2. Higher Educational level, improving occupational skills and status, and doing cognitively engaging activities[3] like reading, writing, hobbies, traveling, coding, music, cooking novel food, gardening, etc., increase Cognitive and Brain reserve as measured by cognitive tests.
  3. There is conclusive evidence[4] that educational development creates a protective barrier on the brain that safeguards overall cognition from the burden put on the brain by disease, trauma, aging, and stress.
  4. Physical activity[5], including exercise, sports, hobbies, etc., improves cognitive health and brain health at all ages. It promotes the growth of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which creates more cognitive and brain reserve. The mechanism here is exercising muscles releases myokines from the muscles, a protein that signals the genes in the hippocampus (brain region governing the birth of new neurons and learning) to synthesize BDNF. BDNF is also a protein that protects neurons from damage.
  5. Learning a second language (or more) creates lifelong changes in the brain, and using those languages maintains those changes. A large part of the brain and cognitive reserve is to recruit new neural circuits and be flexible in problem-solving. This can be measured by how much the brain suppresses interfering signals from the brain. More interference means less flexibility. One novel brain-imaging study[6] shows bilinguals have thinner connectivity in the area that creates this interference. Thinner means more flexible and open to alternate neural pathways.

For practical purposes, since we have to live a life, I’ll give tips for developing both together in detail. Research suggests both feed into each other[7], so it is economical to target both together. The obvious reason why both feed into each other is because new learning effectively translates into structural changes in the brain with more nuanced patterns of brain activity.

So, what does this research tell us about building cognitive and brain reserve?

  1. Get educated
  2. Increase hobbies and skill practice
  3. Diversify experiences and new learnings
  4. Enter stimulating social circles
  5. Manage stress because high stress takes a toll on brain function
  6. Have healthy life choices because sleep, nutrition, and exercise do your brain’s upkeep
  7. Learn multiple languages
  8. Stay cognitively engaged and stimulated by taking up challenges and stimulating work
  9. Explore the world and absorb what you can
  10. Increase overall activity and reduce passivity (become creators instead of just consumers)

If you do all (or some) of these, you also develop “psychological richness” which is 1 of 3 components of a satisfying, good life.

Related: Why you should learn new skills even when you don’t need them

Some common Hobbies that can improve brain and cognitive reserve in your free time (No need to change other aspects of your life.)

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  1. Making music
  2. Reading and writing different types of content
  3. Visiting other cultures and learning about their people and languages
  4. Photography
  5. Design and visual art
  6. Engineering/coding
  7. Gardening and DIY home improvement
  8. Board games, computer games, and puzzles
  9. Sports
  10. Dance and make reels

BR and CR at a glance

Brain reserveCognitive reserve
ConceptBR is a physical aspect of the brain’s biological structures.CR is a process aspect of the brain’s neural networks that translates into cognitive (mental phenomena) that cope with stress and damage and ALSO increase overall mental efficiency and flexibility.
How it worksDensity of interconnected neurons, brain volume, gray and white matter density, number of neurons. It’s quantified using brain scans. BR is a passive source that develops slowly over a lifetime.The ability to recruit new neural circuits and ease of forming new neural connections to maintain memory, attention, decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity in spite of damage. It’s quantified by assessing cognitive ability. CR is an active resource that translates variation in brain activity to real-time cognition.
ActivationGenetic and holistic lifestyle aspects like nutrition, exercise, sleep, and brain activities strengthen BR. Some may be predisposed to lower or higher BR than average.Cognitive engagement like technical hobbies, education, leisure activities, specialization, variation in experience, practicing a skill/art, etc., activates it.
Protective capacityWhen the neural structures are physically insufficient to offset the deterioration in other parts of the brain, cognitive symptoms appear.When a person can effortfully use new ideas, alternative thinking, strategies, and tricks to maintain cognitive function in spite of deterioration, especially when brain reserve isn’t enough to do so.
Developing itPre-natal and life-long medically healthy practices with an overall engaged life. Early childhood and young adulthood are critical brain development areas, so health and engagement early on help a lot.Effortful skill practice and learning across various categories and attempting creative work. It also develops through rich social interactions and collaborative work with goals (like running businesses, entrepreneurship, performances, etc.)

Related: Life-long tips to keep your memory intact and improve it

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