Cognitive Reserve: What is it and why do I need it?

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The interest in cognitive reserve started in the field of Alzheimer’s disease. Later on, the exploration of cognitive reserve branched out to healthy ageing, mild cognitive impairment and heart failure to name a few.

What is it?

Simply said, envision the cognitive reserve as the ability of your brain to think of alternative ways of completing an intensive task. Your brain is capable of “shifting in another gear” to accelerate past obstacles or adapting to the challenges and operate with added cognitive functionality when facing big challenges.

Originally the idea of cognitive reserve arose in Alzheimer research. Individuals that didn’t show symptoms of Alzheimer while being alive lead to the hypothesis that these individuals were able to cope with the impaired cognitive functioning due to their cognitive reserve. This would be able to compensate for the lack of cognitive abilities and the individual could just continue living with a healthy quality of life.

Reserve Theory

Two models combine for the Reserve Theory, being cerebral reserve and cognitive reserve respectively. The prior – cerebral reserve – is commonly known as the passive model with the hypothesis that a certain threshold of symptoms needs to be present before a brain pathology “shows up”. The latter – cognitive reserve – is seen as the active model with the hypothesis originating from a cerebral plasticity point-of-view. The cognitive reserve states that either compensatory mechanisms or flexible and adaptive networks provide the brain with the ability to cope with a certain loss of cognitive functionality, be it in healthy individuals or cognitively impaired individuals. 

Why do I need it?

Research showed that (healthy) individuals with a higher cognitive reserve may possess more efficient networks, allowing them to perform better on cognitive intensive tasks compared to individuals with a lower cognitive reserve. Additionally, an increased cognitive reserve is correlating to a better working memory performance. An active cognitive lifestyle is needed to attain higher levels of cognitive reserve. Living an active cognitive lifestyle means participating in activities in the intellectual, social, and physical domains.

Case study: Dementia

A group of individuals with dementia were evaluated on their cognitive reserve and the impact cognitive training had. Multiple analyses showed that cognitive reserve was a significant factor in predicting changes in the cognitive performance after doing cognitive training. The research showed that cognitive reserve in individuals with both lower and higher cognitive reserve benefitted both from cognitive training.


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