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Cognitive Reserve and Brain Maintenance
Episode 1423rd February 2023 • Brain Beat • National Academy of Neuropsychology Foundation
00:00:00 00:21:18

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In today’s episode, host Pete Stavinoha welcomes Dr. Yaakov Stern to the podcast. Dr. Stern is the Florence Irving Professor of Neuropsychology in the Departments of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology, and the Taub Institute for the Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, as well as  the chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division in the Department of Neurology at Columbia. His research work focuses on cognition in normal aging and diseases of aging, including exploring the neural implementation of cognitive reserve, structural and functional imaging of cognitive aging, and modeling the natural history of Alzheimer's disease.  As an internationally recognized expert in the field,  Dr. Stern joins our host here today to shed light on the concept of cognitive reserve and its connection to aging. 

Along the way, Dr. Stern explains the concept of cognitive reserve - the idea that some individuals are able to maintain their cognitive function despite brain changes associated with aging and diseases such as Alzheimer's. He notes that this ability is linked to various factors across a person's lifespan, including education, social networks, diet, and exercise. Together, he and Pete delve into the idea of brain maintenance, which is closely tied to cognitive reserve and is about maintaining the brain better than others. They go on to emphasize the importance of lifestyle factors in improving cognitive reserve, and that, while the concepts of cognitive reserve and brain maintenance may seem complex, they can be understood by looking at the "software" and "hardware" of the brain. This fascinating and instructive episode draws to a close by highlighting the fact that while higher cognitive reserve may not prevent Alzheimer's disease, it can help individuals maintain their cognitive function for a longer period of time.

Episode highlights:

  • An overview of the concept of cognitive reserve and brain maintenance

  • The multiple factors that influence cognitive reserve

  • The relationship between brain maintenance and cognitive reserve

  • Some threats to cognitive reserve

  • The role of the environment and the "exposome"

  • How cognitive reserve relates to aging

  • The brain’s"software" and "hardware"

  • Lifestyle factors that can help to improve cognitive reserve

  • Cognitive stimulation through hobbies and leisure activities

  • The controversy that surrounded the idea of cognitive reserve in the past

  • Higher cognitive reserve and Alzheimer's


"The concept of cognitive reserve speaks to individual differences in the resilience to brain changes."

"The idea of brain maintenance is that some people maintain their brains better than others."

"To the extent that you have less of these brain changes, your cognition is going to be more preserved."

"Both concepts are closely tied, with factors that impact cognitive reserve also having an impact on brain maintenance."

"How flexible are they in solution strategy? How trained are they in doing certain things?"

"Healthy diet, exercise seems to be very important.”

"I'm not talking about going and taking a college course if that's not what you're interested in, but just being engaged in something, whether it be a hobby or gardening, leisure activities. All of these things seem to be associated with better reserve."

"The idea that this flexibility of the brain can help people stave off something as powerful as Alzheimer's disease just did not seem logical."

"It's pretty clear, I think people agree that the childhood, the infant phase, is really very important in setting the stage.”


National Academy of Neuropsychology Foundation website

Dr. Stern



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