Protect your memory by adding to your "brain bank," from Harvard’s Improving Memory Special Health Report

Have you become more forgetful over the years? Rest assured that the minor memory lapses that occur with age are not usually signs of a serious neurological disorder, such as Alzheimer's disease, but rather the result of normal changes in the structure and function of the brain. Want to keep your brain sharp? Keep learning and stay physically and mentally active, counsels Improving Memory, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. Those strategies boost your "brain bank," improving the brain's capacity to withstand damage associated with disease or injury.

Alzheimer's disease doesn't affect everyone in the same way. In people whose brains are being damaged by the disease, some continue to function normally while others suffer severe memory loss and other problems. Two components help explain the difference.

The first, called brain reserve capacity, is the number of nerve cells and nerve-to-nerve connections (synapses) in the brain. In theory, a person who has more brain "hardware" is able to maintain memory and thinking skills even when some of the hardware is damaged. The second element, cognitive reserve, reflects the brain's ability to develop and use alternative nerve pathways or thinking strategies when disease or injury damage parts of the brain. People whose brains have alternate networks or cognitive strategies are less likely to experience disruption in their mental processes.

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