Neuropsychology • Cognitive Rehabilitation • Psychotherapy • Cognitive Wellness Coaching


12-5-2012: Building the Brain’s 401K:
How the Theory of Cognitive Reserve can Help You Lower Your Risk for Dementia.

No two brains respond to injury or disease in exactly the same way. There are some people who can experience a relatively minor stroke or brain injury and experience a lot of cognitive and functional decline, while others can experience serious injuries or substantial disease growth and function quite well.

Cognitive Reserve is the theory that was developed to describe these dramatic variations, summarizing a wealth of research over the last few decades that has challenged the way we look at the adult brain and it changes throughout our entire lives.

You can think of Cognitive Reserve as your Brain’s 401K or retirement account. Simply put, it seems that through a number of factors, many of which are related to lifestyle, people and build up resistance to memory loss (or dementia). It seems that people with high cognitive reserve actually have more brain power stored in the bank (more brain cells and more connections between brain cells) that can make up for the losses caused by disease or injury.

So when planning financially for retirement, if you have a lot invested in your retirement account, you can survive losses - such as fluctuations in the market or an unexpected expense - much better if your account is bigger than if it were smaller. This principle seems to apply to our brains too, which serves as the basis for the theory of cognitive reserve. People with high levels of Cognitive Reserve have to sustain many more losses before crossing over the threshold to having dementia than people who have lower reserve.

Cognitive Reserve Theory grew out of new discoveries about the brain from the last couple of decades. One of the first discoveries leading to this theory came after scientists noticed that a group of people who had donated their brains for autopsy showed signs of advanced Alzheimer’s disease in their brains even though at the time of their death they had no clinical signs of the disease. In other words, these were people with fully intact memories who had remained quite independent, yet their brains looked exactly the same as the brains of people who had forgotten their families and could no longer care for themselves.

The scientists wondered if there might be something different about the way these people had lived their lives that allowed them to resist the effects of the Alzheimer’s disease pathology that had grown in their brains. It turned out that these people had been more active intellectually, socially and physically throughout their adult lives than the people in the other group.

Since these early studies, scientists have come to agree on some key lifestyle patterns that can help people build and maintain their cognitive reserve. At CCCW we specialize in helping people implement these lifestyle patterns for themselves, working to lower their odds of developing dementia or delaying its onset.

Through this blog you will learn may ways to keep your brain sharp as you age, but one of the biggest investments that you can make into your Brain’s 401K may be working with one of our specialists.


12-15-2012 Maximize Contributions and Minimize Deductions

Any good financial advisor would tell you that the two main strategies for building a healthy retirement account are to 1) Maximize Contributions and 2) Minimize Deductions. The same strategy is important for investing in your Brain’s 401K, in other words working to strengthen and grow your own personal cognitive reserve.

How does one go about taking an active role in maximizing contributions and minimizing deductions from their own Brain 401K? You may be readily able to think of ways to minimize deductions, this is pretty easy because brain loss has occupied our thinking of how the adult brain operates for centuries. So avoiding things that can damage the brain just as head injuries or substance abuse come readily to mind.

It may be harder for you to think of ways of actively investing in, or making contributions to, your Brain’s 401K though. Conventional wisdom has lead us to believe that the brain doesn’t grow or change much once a person has reached adulthood. We used to be told that we were born all of the brain cells we would ever have, and once the connections between brain cells developed, they couldn’t be rewired.

Important brain discoveries over the past 20 years have turned these assumptions on their head! We now know that the adult brain not only grows new brain cells, but existing brain cells can grow new connections and strengthen existing connections simply through what we experience day-to-day.

Throughout this blog you will learn more about these discoveries and ways that you can not only minimize losses to your Brain’s 401K, but how you can also take an active role to maximize your contributions.


12-19-2012 Brain 401K Investment Tips

Based on research from around the world, experts now know the key lifestyle patterns that promote cognitive reserve.  This list of recommendations are some of the best investments that you can make to your Brain’s 401K. While we don’t know the precise return on investment (ROI) for the activities in this list, we are learning more and more each day. I’ve tried to rank them in order of what today’s evidence indicate about their relative return on investment:

Physical Exercise: Some studies suggest that this may be the single best activity for your brain. Not only does it help you minimize losses but helping you build a stronger heart and reduce the risk for stoke and other brain threatening disease, but physical exercise also helps you actively invest in your Brain’s 401K by increasing the rate at which you grow new brain cells and for most people increases the production of chemicals that grow and protect new brain cells and connections between brain cells (called nerve growth factors).

Mental Stimulation: Keeping your brain active is the foundation of the concept of use it or lose it.  The more you learn throughout your life, the more connections you grow between brain cells. It seems that learning something new can help you grow new pathways between brain cells and may provide a higher ROI than doing routine brain stimulation such as your 10,000th crossword puzzle.

Stress Management: Chronic stress has the opposite effect of exercise on the brain.  High levels of stress hormones kill brain cells and prevent new ones from growing, so implementing a routine of recovery and relaxation is essential. CCCW offers a range of interventions to promote stress reduction and overall wellness.

Brain Healthy Diet: A healthy heart is essential to a healthy brain, so while there is a lot of conflicting advice about brain health, it seems that adopting a heart-healthy diet will pay strong dividends for your brain. Key steps include maintaining a healthy body weight throughout your life, lowering/eliminating saturated fats and trans fats, eating lots of fruits and veggies for fiber and antioxidants, eating foods that are low glycemic (whole grains, low in sugar, etc.), and consuming good fats, especially Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish.

Positive Relationships: One of the first things researchers learned about people with high reserve was that they tend to have many more social connections than people with low reserve.  The quality of those relationships also matters, so cherish your supportive friends and spend more time with people who build you up.

Maintaining Your Physical Health: Common medical conditions add extra wear and tear to your brain and lower reserve.  That's why it is important to follow general health guidelines and work closely with your doctor to treat medical conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.


2-7-2015 (updated 2-10-2015): Vaccines and Brain Wellness:Adults, you may not be immune!!! by Sherrie All, PhD Director, Chicago Center for Cognitive Wellness.

With the recent measles outbreaks and even increased cases of mumps, I thought this would be a good time to highlight the link between immunity and cognitive wellness.

Many of the previously eradicated diseases that are making a comeback can quickly develop into brain infections or what we call encephalitis. So one way of protecting your brain health is to protect yourself from these infections, which can cause sensory loss, motor impairment, cognitive decline and even death.

You read that right. I said YOUR BRAIN.

Adults need to understand that immunity is not permanent or guaranteed even if you got all your shots as a child and even if you had a booster.

I just gave birth to twins this past fall, my 3rd pregnancy, during which it was discovered that I was no longer immune to rubella. I was immune 3 years ago during my second pregnancy though, so in 3 short years it wore off. When the babies were born I got the booster. No big deal.

Yesterday I was at my PCP's office and we started chatting about the recent measles outbreak at a daycare center in Palatine, IL, a suburb of Chicago and in my opinion WAY too close for comfort!! (Recall that I own the CHICAGO Center for Cognitive Wellness and now have not one, but 2 infants vulnerable to the measles).

My doctor asked if anyone had checked to see if the booster I got in the hospital "took" because often it does not I guess. He also told me that the pregnancy screen doesn't test for regular measles, so I just had a simple blood test drawn by the nurse in the office to check. One small blood vile. Very easy. That was Friday. I'll find out my immunity on Monday. (Update: I'm immune! Yay vaccines!)

The vaccination of children and exposure to people from other countries where immunization programs are or were not as prevalent as in the US seems to be getting all of the attention as the root of this crisis. Certainly this is understandable given that the recent trend of parents refusing vaccines for their children is likely what tipped off the current crises. (Sadly these parents often chose not to vaccinate because they feared a brain disorder. Let's be clear: there is NO link between vaccines and autism. The former doctor who published the one and only study showing that link made it up!!!). But even previously immune adults can play a role in allowing these outbreaks to spread.

So you too can help protect yourself and the "herd" from these dangerous infections by checking your own immunity. The concept of herd immunity refers to the fact that if enough people in a community are inoculated, a communicable disease won't be able to spread to those who cannot be immunized because they are too young (infants under 1 year for measles, mumps and rubella) or too ill.

So go get your immunity checked and boosted if needed. It only takes a simple blood draw to get a titer, and the whole thing could be covered by insurance and may not even require a doctor's appointment.

We all have a role to play in being socially responsible, and we can all work together to improve and protect our collective brain health. Now get off the internet and go call your doctor's office.


Coloring: Could this be your next healthy brain activity? by Sherrie All, PhD.

While tooling around on my Facebook page, I came across this NPR article For Adults, Coloring Invites Creativity And Brings Comfort espousing the brain benefits of coloring for adults. Of course this peaked my interest, so I read on.

According to reports on recent coloring book sales, it appears that adult coloring is gaining in popularity as a brainy leisure-time activity. Some examples include Zen Doodle and a graduate school favorite of mine the Human Brain Coloring Book (not just for graduate students). Marbles the Brain Store offers a coloring book called Pixel Pictures which can have the added benefit of stimulating the face-processing centers of the brain that pull bits of information together to form a coherent whole.

The proposed benefit of adult coloring as a whole is that it can be used as a tool for engaging in mindfulness-based, present moment awareness. Coloring is thought to require an optimal amount of focused attention, just enough to interrupt the thought stream known to trigger worry, rumination and the stress response but not so much to cause the brain to become fatigued.

There seems to be a mild amount of stimulation offered to the pre-frontal networks involved in planning and organizing the color pattern, but this seems to be considerably less than the type of problem solving that something like a Sudoku puzzle would require. This provides the opportunity to “turn off” the frontal lobes and give them what is likely for most of us a much-needed rest.

That said, however, it doesn’t appear that these brain activity conclusions have been captured in brain imaging studies per se. In fact the amount of research on this topic that I was able to identify is promising but limited to a couple of experiments showing improvements on self-report measures of stress perception but no physiology (Curry & Kasser, 2005).

Since coloring is a prominent activity among other members of my household – of the preschool variety – I decided to give this activity a shot by joining my older girls in their coloring on a recent Saturday morning. We needed to chat about a dilemma at their school anyway, so this seemed to provide the perfect opportunity to talk with them about this stressful topic, like the way they do it Law and Order.

As we collectively colored a large print of who I thought was Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen (but later turned out to be Anna – apparently I haven’t seen this movie enough! Go figure.), I did experience some of the relaxing effects of focusing my attention on staying in the lines and the challenge to sustain my attention in persisting to finish a particularly large section. We were also able to peacefully solve the school problem.

In addition to focused awareness, the mindfulness principle that was most salient for me though was the challenge to attend “non-judgmentally.” I noticed several perfectionist thoughts when I discovered that I had colored Anna’s hair yellow thinking she was Elsa and when my 5-year-old colored her face with orange marker.

So if you want to take up coloring as a mindfulness practice or as your latest brain exercise for “relaxed concentration,” I say go for it! I’m not convinced that coloring has any “greater powers” in lowering stress than any other consuming activity such as knitting or cross-stitch, but on the other hand it doesn’t really require a lot of investment in time, equipment, or learning. It’s something most people can just quickly pick up and do. And if you’re solving problems all day long, then it can be a really nice way to invest in some “relaxed brain time,” turning off the gears a little better than something problem-solving heavy like Sudoku.

More Press Articles on Adult Coloring:

>> grown up get out their crayons
>> coloring for stress

16 Colouring Books That Are Perfect For Grown-Ups