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Cognitive Resilience (and How to Build It!)

Building cognitive resilience can help you retain the cognitive function of someone decades younger and enable you to remain sharp with your memory intact.


Like the common cold, there is no cure for Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. But, just as you can protect yourself from catching a cold by building up your immunity, you can also protect yourself against dementia, or delay its onset, by building up cognitive resilience.

Researchers say that building cognitive resilience can help you retain the cognitive function of someone decades younger and enable you to remain sharp with your memory intact. Furthermore, studies have found that even those with pathological brain changes of Alzheimer’s can stave off cognitive decline by storing up cognitive resilience.  

So, how can you develop it?

Learning from Superagers

Over time, most people's brains shrink and atrophy, which often leads to cognitive decline. This decline is normal but not inevitable. However, there are a small group of people who defy this routine stage of aging. These cognitive Superagers, as researchers call them, live into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s with brain power similar to those in their 50s, give or take a decade.

Scientists are studying why these Superagers stay cognitively healthy while others with similar backgrounds and brain pathology don't. In one study, researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine looked at brain MRI scans of Superagers 80 and above and compared them to the scans of cognitively typical 80-year-olds as well as those of younger adults.

They found that the rate of brain shrinkage in Superagers is much slower than in typical 80-somethings. They also found that the anterior cingulate, an area in the brain that supports attention, was thicker in the Superagers' brains (similar to what is found in brain imaging of people in their 50s and 60s).

What makes these Superagers, well, super? Some studies point to good genes. Researchers have identified a variety of genes, dubbed "longevity genes," common in long-lived people. In one study, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine identified a gene variant common in very long-lived people that boosts production of HDL, or good cholesterol. According to researchers, people with two copies of this gene variant "had a 70 percent lower chance of developing Alzheimer's and other dementias, as well as a significantly lower rate of memory decline ."

But, if you didn't win the genetic lottery, researchers have also identified lifestyle traits in Superagers that you can emulate to build cognitive resilience.

What can you do to boost cognitive resilience?

While there are lifestyle factors common among Superagers that you can't easily duplicate in middle age, such as choosing a challenging career or having an advanced degree, there are lifestyle habits you can pursue at any age to build resilience.

You gotta have friends

Superagers report having strong, high-quality relationships with friends and family, more so than their cognitively-typical senior cohorts. This finding correlates with other studies that link psychological well-being with strong cognitive performance in older adults. And, another study from NYU Grossman School of Medicine found that simply having someone you can count on to listen to you when you need to talk, most are all of the time, is associated with greater cognitive resilience.

Pursue or continue meaningful work

To keep your brain active, you must activate it. For example, a Mayo Clinic study found that people who engaged in intellectually enriching education and occupational pursuits were more resilient to cognitive decline, even people with Alzheimer’s genetic risk factors.

Challenge yourself and enjoy the challenge

According to Emily Rogalski, Ph.D., a Superager researcher at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, challenging your brain is vital, but it's also essential to enjoy the challenge. For example, while crossword puzzles are challenging and brain power-boosting for most, you won't necessarily reap the benefits if you find them easy or don't enjoy them. "My general advice is find something that challenges you, and that is exciting to you, and focus on that," said Rogalski in an American Psychological Association podcast.

Be a problem-solver

Another way to keep your brain active and challenge yourself is not to shy away from a complicated problem or project, whether it’s putting together IKEA furniture, fixing a computer glitch, or helping your grandchildren with their homework. Instead of giving up or asking someone else to fix or do something, push through the discomfort or confusion, stay with the problem through the end, and focus on succeeding.

Maintain good hearing and vision

You can't stay engaged if you can't hear or see what's happening. Therefore, it's not surprising to learn that, according to a 2020 Lance commission report, hearing loss is one of the top risk factors for dementia. If you can't hear, your brain is less engaged and active. And according to Dr. Thomas T. Perls, a geriatrician at Boston University who directs the New England Centenarian Study, poor vision exacerbates cognitive decline and hearing loss results in a cognitive loss.