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Approved Research

Cognitive reserve markers and dementia incidence

Principal Investigator: Dr Dorina Cadar
Approved Research ID: 56580
Approval date: September 22nd 2020

Lay summary


It is not clear exactly what activities contribute to an increased ability to resist brain damage. It is believed that educational attainment, work complexity and mentally stimulating leisure activities can enhance cognitive reserve, but more studies are needed to achieve conclusive results. Therefore, this project aims to investigate what life-course activities individually increase the amount of cognitive reserve. This project also aims to combine these various markers into one cognitive reserve score, and test if increased levels protect against dementia.

Scientific rationale

The brain has a natural capability to repair itself and resist neuropathological damage, but this ability is severely affected by dementia progression. Over the years, scientists have been puzzled by marked differences between individuals who are able to resist and recuperate from brain damage and those who are not. Hence, the ongoing research question is: What makes some people cope with brain damage and neurodegeneration better than others?

Around 30% of autopsy reports show that older individuals who preserved their mental abilities, show damage in their brains after they pass away. To explain the inconsistency between brain damage and its manifestation, it has been proposed that the combined knowledge and experiences individuals acquire through their life protect the brain by increasing its ability to resist damage. The enhanced protection that results from activities carried out throughout the lifetime has been named cognitive reserve. To date, several studies have found evidence supporting that high levels of cognitive reserve can protect against dementia.

Project duration

5 year duration, starting January 2020 up to Dec 2025

Public health impact

Individuals with high cognitive reserve can delay or fully avoid the effects of dementia; even if they develop the disease, they are able to overcome its symptoms (memory loss, disorientation, language problems, poor judgment, and mood changes) and continue living an independent lifestyle. Hence, promoting an enhanced cognitive reserve throughout the lifetime will benefit the lives of people who will hopefully avert neurological conditions such as dementia.

This project will also investigate the extent to which cognitive reserve can continue to enrich cognitive performance through lifestyle activities, even after a dementia diagnosis. People already affected by dementia symptoms can potentially slow their decline by participating in cognitive reserve enhancing activities.

Based on the results of this study, cognitive reserve enhancing policies and programs can be put into practice in the UK, extending the quality of life of millions of people and their families in the country.