We used path analysis on data from the British 1946 birth cohort to model lifetime antecedents of cognitive reserve, represented by the NART at 53 years, and compared this model for verbal memory and psychomotor function at this age, cognitive outcomes that are sensitive to age-associated decline. We showed independent paths from childhood cognition, educational attainment and adult occupation to cognitive reserve, with that from childhood cognition the strongest, and that from adult occupation the weakest. A similar pattern was found for the verbal memory and psychomotor outcomes, although the pathways were weaker than those to the NART. The pattern was also mirrored by the paths from paternal occupation to childhood cognition, educational attainment and adult occupation, with that to childhood cognition the strongest, and that to adult occupation the weakest. The direct influence of paternal occupation on cognitive reserve was negligible, and almost entirely mediated by childhood cognitive ability and educational attainment.