Learn about ‘cognitive reserve’ at CRI

By John Nadeau | Oct 27, 2011

            Experts call it “cognitive reserve.”

            What’s that all about?

            Scientists studying Alhzeimer’s disease use this term to describe the ability of the brain to use alternative thinking strategies in response to damage from disease or injury.

            They theorize that a person who has more brain “hardware,” that is, neurons and synapses, to fall back on can think straight even when some of that hardware is impaired.

The cognitive part of the theory refers to the degree of capability the brain has in processing information.

            Although brain reserve capacity is in large part genetically determined, there is encouraging news for everyone. Studies that include MRI scans prove cognitive stimulation can alter brain structure for the better.

Furthermore, this stimulation can take place regardless of an individual’s level of education.

            Virtually any activity that stretches the brain can bolster cognitive reserve, according to a recent monograph published by the Harvard Medical School.

            Some ways of challenging your mind are obvious, for example, doing crossword puzzles, participating in book discussion groups, and playing poker or bridge.

However, social connections, that is, close ties with others, are also extremely beneficial, according to the McArthur study on aging.

            Researchers found that the higher the individual’s level of social interaction, the better the mental function. This was a result found across all age groups – not just the elderly.

            Support can come from relationships with friends, relatives, or healthcare professionals as well as from religious or educational organizations.

This is where lifelong learning programs like the Creative Retirement Institute (CRI) at Edmonds Community College come into the picture.

            Programs like CRI offer older adults a double-barreled approach. They have opportunities not only to engage their brains but also to maintain a high level of social contact.

            Since 1993 CRI has offered college-level, non-credit courses on subjects that draw from the humanities and sciences and also deal with current affairs.

            Each quarter, there are about 30 courses to choose from, ranging from classes on shorelines of the world to Victorian novels to Seattle architecture to film noir classics.

Classes are usually small, thereby encouraging  student participation, and they aren’t expensive. Assistance with tuition fees is available.

            Besides this intellectual component, there are social events in which students can meet  people and make new friends.

These include luncheons, featuring talks by local celebrities, that take place before each term and a summer social open to all CRI members.

            The take-away message is: Engaging your brain with stimulating experiences will afford it greater protection. But you must build this cognitive reserve as an ongoing process.

For more information about the Creative Retirement Institute, phone 425-640-1806 or go to www.edcc.edu/cri.

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