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Preserve Tomorrow's Function With What You Do Today

Keeping active now is an insurance policy for later life.

Key points

  • Physical training and learning can enhance neuroplasticity.
  • Neuroplastic adaptations yield protection for cognition and motor skills.
  • Enhanced reserve capacity extends to many brain regions beyond the cortex.

It seems kind of intuitively obvious that the bigger something is, the more of it will be left over after injury. If you have the muscle strength to deadlift 300 pounds and somebody else can lift 200 pounds, and you both stop training for whatever reason, you will still be relatively stronger after the same time has passed. In this way, the amount of training somebody does might help preserve capacity and resilience later. Maybe the same thing is true for your brain as it ages.

Training and Learning Enhance Cognitive Reserve

One way strengthening the brain is discussed is “cognitive reserve.” Marcos Vinicius Ferreira Silva and collaborators in Brazil relate brain reserve and cognitive reserve as a kind of compensation by the nervous system. In their paper in the Journal of Biomedical Science, they suggested that regaining or maintaining function after injury or aging can be supported by the amount of available neural structure (density of synapses and branching of dendritic trees) combined with the ability to use the activity in the brain to recruit supporting resources.

Notably, factors associated with greater cognitive reserve include physical activity level, activities you did for work, and your level of education. There’s evidence that those with less schooling and a lower level of academic achievement have a higher risk of dementia. In contrast, those with a higher leisure time performance and physical activity have a lower risk of developing dementia.

Martin Lovden and colleagues synthesized results from many studies in their article called “Education and Cognitive Functioning Across the Life Span.” They suggested that the number of years of formal education someone completes “is positively correlated with their cognitive function throughout adulthood and predicts lower risk of dementia in later life.”

Such effects are argued to have benefits on various cognitive abilities. Fluid abilities of cognition like psychomotor speed, memory, and abstract reasoning, along with crystallized skills like vocabulary, literacy, numeracy, and specialized domain knowledge, are positively impacted by education in early life.

Thomas Fritsch and friends from Cleveland examined records from almost 400 older adults (average age 75 years) who graduated in the 1940s from the same high school. They showed that higher adolescent IQ and physical activity levels were associated with lowered risk of developing dementia. This was attributed to the enhancement of “cognitive reserve.”

Motor Skill and Physical Ability Also Affect the Cerebellum

When we think about physical activity and brain reserve, it’s more than the cortex. The main player is the cerebellum. The cerebellum sits tucked under the occipital lobe at the back of your brain. If you absently rub a sore neck (which involves using this brain region), you’re often running your hand just beneath where the cerebellum, a kind of cauliflower-looking pair of lobes, is found. And recently, I found some neat work on “cerebellar reserve.”

Francesca Gelfo and Laura Petrosini suggest that the “reserve” concept is where complex experiences across the lifespan provide better neural integrity to protect against future damage and aging. They extend this to the cerebellum as well as the more often considered and studied cerebral cortex. Neuroplastic adaptability within the cerebellum has been well studied in many paradigms and is highly sensitive to “environmental enrichment,” a fancy science phrase meaning experiences and training.

An Active Lifestyle Is an Insurance Policy for Future Capacity

The upshot of this is it helps put in context the idea that physical training and activity has an additional neural basis in building reserve and advanced capacity through neuroplastic adaptation. This “insurance policy” can help offset damage from injury and decline associated with negative effects over the lifespan.

So, when you are out there karate kata kicking, training T’ai Chi tao lu, playing piano, going for a run, or getting out and gardening, keep in mind (see what I did there) that you are training your brain with movement. This helping hand you are giving yourself helps not just today or tomorrow but your resilience far into the future.

© E. Paul Zehr (2022).

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