The concept of “cognitive reserve” has been used to explain why some people maintain their cognitive abilities in old age despite normal age-related atrophy of their brains. 205 retired people aged 66-88 from the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (www.cam-can.com) performed a cognitive test of IQ, had a brain scan and completed a questionnaire about the activities they had undertaken during their youth, middle-age and (current) old-age. A composite score of their mid-life intellectual, physical and social activities made a unique contribution in predicting current cognitive ability, over and above their education in youth. Current activities in old-age and mid-life occupation made no unique contribution. Furthermore, the higher their mid-life activity score, the less dependent was their cognitive ability on a global measure of brain structural health: in other words, mid-life activities behaved as a form of cognitive reserve. The potential modifiability of these mid-life activities has implications for maintaining function in the ageing population and potentially reducing the impact of dementia.