The science behind staying sharp


By Ellen McIntosh | Friday 25 August 2023

Staying sharp is one of our three simple rules for better brain health, but what does this mean in practice?

Research shows that mental activity as well as physical activity, particularly in midlife, could have a protective effect in the brain and on your health in later life. Researchers have suggested that this mental activity helps build ‘cognitive reserve’ – our brain’s ability to cope and keep working, even in the face of damage from diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The concept of cognitive reserve is widely researched by scientists. There is evidence showing how people respond differently to damage caused by brain diseases and everyone’s response is, to some degree, as unique as they are.

So, why may one person’s cognitive reserve be better than the next persons?

It is thought our early life education, combined with factors like our career and experiences shape our cognitive reserve. Not all of this is within our control – we can’t change or influence our early education, nor can we always have the job we would want, but there are things we can do to boost our cognitive reserve to positively impact our brain’s ability to function properly in later life.

Keeping our brain stimulated is incredibly important. This can be through leisure activities, continuing to learn and maintaining social interaction too.


family playing a board game


What does the latest research tell us?

Prof Clive Ballard from the University of Exeter is looking at one avenue of research linked to staying sharp. He works on a large digital research programme called PROTECT, that will understand how healthy brains age and what combination of factors including diet, exercise, sleep and activities designed to keep our brains active could be most protective against dementia. The study is also looking at how to encourage people to adopt changes that could improve brain health in later life.

Beyond the PROTECT programme, there are several other studies that have helped build our understanding of our protecting brain health. For example, UK-based researchers recently discovered that people with a high cognitive reserve by the age of 69 – developed by challenging their brains through work, education and social and leisure activities – were less likely to experience memory and thinking decline in later life.

Which activities are best for our brain health?

Challenging our brains is a concept we can adapt to our likes and lives, as long as the activities we choose test our thinking and memory. Many people immediately think of a crossword or sudoku. These can be great ways to stimulate our brains, but they’re not the only ways.

Activities like book clubs, learning a new language, picking up a musical instrument or taking on new, interesting tasks at work are other ways we can do this without it feeling like a test.

Research is ongoing, but so far there’s no single magic activity that’s proven to be better than anything else. So, the take home message here is to do activities that you enjoy and can incorporate regularly into your daily life to help boost your cognitive reserve.

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About the author

Ellen McIntosh