The cerebral reserve hypothesis is a heuristic concept used to explain apparent protection from the onset of cerebral disease and/or cognitive decline in old age. A significant obstacle when investigating the reserve hypothesis is the absence of baseline data with which to compare current cognitive status. We tested the influence of three hypothesized proxies of reserve (education, head size and occupational attainment [OCC]) in 92 volunteers born in 1921, whose cognitive function was measured at age 11 and 79 years, and who underwent brain MRI. The association between each proxy and old age cognitive function was tested, adjusting for variance contributed by childhood mental ability and detrimental age-related pathological changes measured using MRI. The results showed that education and OCC, but not total intracranial volume (TICV), contribute to cerebral reserve and help retain cognitive function in old age. Education was found to contribute between 5 and 6% of the variance found in old age memory function but was found to have no significant association with reasoning abilities. OCC was found to contribute around 5% of the variance found in old age memory function and between 6 and 8% of the variance found in old age reasoning abilities. We conclude that the intellectual challenges experienced during life, such as education and occupation, accumulate reserve and allow cognitive function to be maintained in old age.