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Brain reserve and dementia: a systematic review

  • MICHAEL J. VALENZUELA (a1) (a2) (a3) and PERMINDER SACHDEV (a1) (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 06 October 2005

Background. Behavioural brain reserve is a property of the central nervous system related to sustained and complex mental activity which can lead to differential expression of brain injury. Behavioural brain reserve has been assessed using autobiographical data such as education levels, occupational complexity and mentally stimulating lifestyle pursuits. So far there have been several epidemiological reports but no systematic review to put conflicting results into context. Our aim was to quantitatively review evidence for the effect of brain reserve on incident dementia.

Method. Cohort studies of the effects of education, occupation, premorbid IQ and mental activities on dementia risk were of interest. Abstracts were identified in MEDLINE (1966–September 2004), CURRENT CONTENTS (to September, 2004), PsychINFO (1984–September 2004), Cochrane Library Databases and reference lists from relevant articles. Twenty-two studies met inclusion criteria. Key information was extracted by both reviewers onto a standard template with a high level of agreement. Studies were combined through a quantitative random-effects meta-analysis.

Results. Higher brain reserve was associated with a lowered risk for incident dementia (summary odds ratio, 0·54; 95% confidence interval, 0·49–0·59). This effect was found over a median of 7·1 years follow-up and resulted from integrating data across more than 29000 individuals. Notably, increased complex mental activity in late life was associated with lower dementia rates independent of other predictors; a dose–response relationship was also evident between extent of complex mental activities in late life and dementia risk.

Conclusions. This study demonstrates robust evidence that complex patterns of mental activity in the early, mid- and late-life stages is associated with a significant reduction in dementia incidence. Randomized control trials based on brain-reserve principles are now required.

Corresponding author
The Black Dog Institute, Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, NSW 2031, Australia. (Email:
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Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
  • URL: /core/journals/psychological-medicine
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