The type of traumatic brain injuries caused by something like a car accident, fall, or blow to the head can have a life-long impact. Even a mild traumatic brain injury can cause symptoms like headaches, insomnia, memory problems, mood swings, and changes in sensory perception. A moderate to severe brain injury can result in all those symptoms, as well as problems like slurred speech, loss of coordination, and profound confusion, often making it difficult for people suffering these injuries to continue working or living a normal life.
However, there is some hope for those who have experienced a TBI—new evidence suggests that the higher the education level, the more likely someone is to have no measurable disability a year after their injury.
Education Increases Cognitive Resilience
A new study from Johns Hopkins, recently published in the journal Neurology, reports that people with higher levels of education are seven times more likely than high school dropouts to have no measurable disability a year after their traumatic brain injury. Researchers based the designation “no disability” on a standard disability rating scale that scores general functional changes over the course of recovery, without the influence of anesthesia or other mind-altering drugs.
The researchers, led by epidemiologist Eric Schneider, looked at 769 adult patients who required a hospital stay and rehabilitation after their traumatic brain injuries. Within this representative sample, only 10% of high school dropout patients had no disability after a year, compared to 39% of people who had either earned a college degree or continued their education after high school. The recovery rate for patients with advanced degrees was even higher.
So what does this all mean? It’s clear from the study that those patients with more education recovered at a higher rate, but what we really need to know is why. Schneider suggests that “cognitive reserve” plays an important role in recovery from TBIs. People increase their brain’s cognitive reserve when they “exercise” that brain—that is, when they activate different areas of their brain through activities such as learning a language, analyzing a text, having a conversation, and even staying physically fit.
If you don’t stimulate your brain as much as an adult, you won’t have as much of a cognitive reserve as those people who do continue learning. In addition to potentially aiding in the recovery from a traumatic brain injury, evidence suggests that more cognitive reserve also makes people less likely to develop memory and cognition problems later in life.
How Do You Increase Your Cognitive Reserve?
No one ever thinks that they’re going to suffer a traumatic brain injury, but you should obviously do everything you can to increase your cognitive resilience in case the worst should happen. The good news is that you can increase your cognitive reserve throughout life even if your formal education is years behind you.
While researchers don’t fully understand what brain changes are responsible for cognitive reserve, evidence from the world of educational training supports the idea that the regions of our brain involved in learning and memory are in play. The more we use the parts of our brain responsible for learning and memory, the stronger that network of brain cells becomes. We’re creating neural pathways, and neurons are able to travel those pathways more quickly (leading to better cognitive function), the more those routes are used.
Schneider stresses that there’s no guaranteed way to increase your cognitive reserve, but there is some evidence that pursuing lifelong learning is beneficial. Some activities that may help you improve your cognitive reserve include:
Learning a new skill.Things like learning a new language, teaching yourself computer programming, or taking an art class can help you stay mentally stimulated. If you’re learning a new skill by reading about it, make sure you’re also applying your knowledge.
Writing. Reading can also be beneficial, but you can’t just passively read—you need to actively engage with the ideas in the text. Writing about a book you’ve read recently (or about any topics that interest you) help you think your ideas through and can also help you improve your memory.
Working in a challenging career. If your job isn’t mentally stimulating enough, see if there are any additional projects or responsibilities you can take on to challenge yourself. If there aren’t, it may be time to consider another career.
Staying socially engaged. Studies show that staying socially engaged throughout life improves physical and mental health, as well as longevity. Schneider also suggests that social engagement may be a key part of improving cognitive reserve.
Exercising. Although it might not be obvious that staying fit is good for your brain, physical activity has actually been shown to benefit cognitive processes such as planning, scheduling, inhibition, and working memory.
Get the Mental and Physical Therapy You Need after a Brain Injury
If you or a loved one does suffer from a traumatic brain injury, it’s imperative that you enter into rehab programs to improve both your physical functioning and your cognition, no matter what your education level. Early rehabilitation is especially important, as research suggests it is essential to patient recovery and may even increase the chances of long-term survival.
In addition to physical therapy, cognitive rehabilitation therapy tailored specifically to the patient may help in the recovery process. Patients should consult with a doctor who specializes in brain injuries to determine what specific course of physical and psychological treatment is best for them.
Victims should not have to worry about the cost of treatment, especially if their TBI was caused by the actions or inactions of another. If you were injured on the job, in a car accident, or in any other situation where another person or organization was entirely responsible for your harm, you should work with a personal injury lawyer to ensure that you receive the compensation to which you are entitled. That way, you can concentrate on recovering physically and mentally, and continuing your lifelong learning to improve cognitive reserve.
About the Author
Andrew Winston is a brain injury lawyer at the personal injury law firm of Lawlor Winston White & Murphey. He has been recognized for excellence in the representation of injured clients by admission to the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, is AV Rated by the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, and was recently voted by his peers as a Florida “SuperLawyer”—an honor reserved for the top 5% of lawyers in the state—and to Florida Trend’s “Legal Elite.”