Cognitive Resilience: What is it? How do I build it?

Cognitive resilience is an important concept in brain health. There has been more attention paid to the building of cognitive resilience to reduce dementia risk and help individuals age well.

What is Cognitive Resilience?

Cognitive resilience is the ability of the brain to buffer against disease and recover from trauma.

In more technical terms, we can think of cognitive resilience in terms of the brain’s structure and its ability to compensate. If the brain has a well-developed structure —if it’s a big brain with lots of synaptic density – it can compensate for disease or trauma. Information can be processed and moved around the damaged parts of the brain. As well, the brain retains a greater capacity to rewire itself — to help those damaged areas heal and regrow brain capacity.

When I think of the impact cognitive resilience can have on an individual’s capacity to recover from trauma I think about Captain Trevor Greene.

Captain Trevor Greene was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan. Prior to joining the Canadian military, he had been a writer, journalist and spoke five languages including Japanese.

During a meeting with tribal elders he took off his helmet as a sign of respect. A young Taliban fighter attacked him with an axe, chopping into the back of his head.

Miraculously, he survived that attack and was brought back to Canada to recover. Through intense physical and mental therapy, he has regained an impressive amount of brain function.

When the attack first occurred, the doctors thought he would remain in a coma or coma-like state for the rest of his life. The established medical approach is to expect abilities to plateau at the six-month mark post trauma. Trevor Greene has re-written the playbook on expected outcomes.

Since the attack on him he has continued to make remarkable strides. He has married and now has two children; he is learning to walk and is writing and speaking. He continues to build his future and to give hope to others who have suffered from a brain trauma.

One of the key elements in his recovery was the excellent physical and mental shape that he was in at the time of the attack.

Similarly, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford is another example of the ability of cognitive resilience to aid recovery from a brain trauma.   Since the shooting in 2011, when a bullet pierced her brain, she has progressed further than she thought possible.

She has regained the ability to walk and speak, she has jumped out of an airplane, completed a 40 mile bike race and founded an advocacy group to reduce gun violence.

Both Trevor Greene and Gabrielle Gifford provide striking examples of what is possible to recover from a traumatic brain injury.

One of the elements that have helped them to recover is their levels of cognitive resilience before the attacks. Building cognitive resilience is an important way to protect and enhance brain health.


Am I too old to start building cognitive resilience?

Many individuals are under the mistaken belief that it is impossible to build brain resilience after a certain age.

Recently this belief was shown to be false by the FINGER study.

The FINGER study, recently published in Sweden, found that lifestyle changes — good nutrition, physical activity, mental activity had a significant impact in reducing the risk of developing dementia. In fact, the study demonstrated that there was a reduction in dementia risk by over 20%.

The interesting thing about the FINGER study was that all the participants were over the age of 65.

This study proved decisively that it is never too late to start building your cognitive resilience.


What can I do to build cognitive resilience?

The key factor in building cognitive resilience is in learning new material.

If you’ve been out of school for awhile, you may wonder what constitutes new material.

The most important element in learning new material is that it should be novel and complex. That means it should be new, interesting and challenging to you. So, if you find history or music or math interesting and challenging, exploring those topics will help you build cognitive resilience.

In this way, building cognitive resilience needs to be a very personal program.

One commonly challenging activity is learning a new language. Learning a new language is an easy and established way to build cognitive resilience. Research has shown that having the capacity to speak a second language reduces dementia risk.

Other factors also impact cognitive resilience. A good exercise program, good nutrition that supports brain health and an active and fulfilling social calendar have an impact on cognitive resilience.


Getting a Cognitive Coach.

As we age, we often find it difficult to motivate ourselves to continue to find new challenges. This is where a cognitive coach can have a positive impact. A cognitive coach, like a personal trainer, focuses on providing the individual they are working with activities that challenge but don’t frustrate.

A cognitive coach can be an important element in an overall cognitive care plan. It is definitely worth considering when planning the best ways to support brain health as you, or your loved one, ages.


As one of the founders and creative minds behind Fit Minds Inc., Nicole has been creating cognitive stimulation therapy programming since 2010. An experienced curriculum developer, teacher and coach, she brings a wealth of experience to creating and teaching the Fit Minds Program. Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.

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