I really love my brain. As my body’s computing centre, it’s central to my existence. It controls the processes in my body and makes sure that everything works. I’m nothing without it.
So it is essential to be aware of its significance and, in my opinion, it should be trained regularly by everyone. That goes for whether that person lives with a neurological disease – like MS – or not.
MS can impair cognitive function
MS can have a major impact on the brain and one of the key things it may affect is cognition. In fact, cognitive dysfunction occurs in 40-65% of people living with the MS.
Cognition refers to “higher” brain functions such as memory, concentration, word-finding, and information-processing. So when these functions are affected, life can be more difficult.
I’ve had some issues trying to find words in the past. Being able to write a word but not being able to say it is really weird, and can be extremely awkward. There have been times where I have felt ashamed and have desperately tried to find a way out of the situation. Thank goodness this doesn’t happen very often, but when it does and I’m feeling under pressure and experiencing a lot of stress, it helps to calm down and take a rest.
Experiencing symptoms like not being able to find my words, acts as a sort of warning sign for me. It motivates me to re-visit the brain-training tools I have used previously. These techniques, technically known as cognitive rehabilitation techniques, are widely used to help people living with MS to compensate for loss of memory, slow learning ability, and other cognitive changes.
Keeping the brain active and busy
In my experience, learning something new, like a poem or a new language, or studying a new subject that requires concentration, really gets my brain going. A report called Brain Health: Time Matters in Multiple Sclerosis, makes the case that through making simple lifestyle changes like keeping your mind active or exercising more, you could make a difference to your symptoms.
Knowing this, it makes sense to have some ‘brain-training’ tips in your arsenal. I typically choose things that I love doing, so I know that while something is training my brain, it’s also going to make me happy.
I find that playing cognition games on my smartphone helps. There are apps aimed specifically at people living with MS, like Amsel’s cognition app, which focuses on strengthening the cognitive skills that are typically stunted by the condition (attention, memory and executive functions). I also like to use general ‘brain-training’ apps like NeuroNation and Lumosity, as they give you a fresh set of games each day, to help keep you challenged and sharp.
If you’re unsure which games or apps will work for you, ask your nurse or neurologist to recommend some.
Knitting is another past time that helps to train my brain. Coordinating a pattern with the needles and the yarn in my hands helps me to focus, as I have to carefully plan the steps to execute each stitch. Research suggests that knitting or other crafts like crocheting or sewing helps to elicit a relaxation response, which in turn slows breathing and causes blood pressure to fall.
Other people I know who live with MS like to play puzzles and games with their kids, like Memory or Scrabble. A friend of mine likes to say, “Do things to make you, and your brain happy!”
Aerobics, Zumba, and dancing
Research suggests that participating in different sports also helps people with MS to train their cognitive functions. In a clinical trial with a group of adults, results showed that group exercises like aerobics helped to improve memory. Coordinating the different steps with the music, moving with the group, and memorising the choreography helped to train their brains intensively.
In addition to the physical benefits, I have found that group exercise classes like aerobics have helped to improve my social life, and I have been able to create relationships with people in similar situations to me. There are also groups for people living with physical disabilities, so that everyone is able to follow the moves and the music with their body, mind, and of course the soul.
My good friend Trishna Bharadia, a woman living with MS and a very engaged patient advocate, participates in weekly Zumba classes with a group of people living with disabilities. She says:
“Zumba and dance helps to keep my brain healthy. You have to learn and remember steps, and you have to coordinate what your muscles are doing – which is sometimes very complicated!
It helps me to improve spatial awareness, and because dancing can involve other people, it reduces feelings of isolation and social stress, which have been proven to contribute to the risk of cognitive decline in anyone – not just people living with MS.
For these reasons, dancing is being suggested as a therapy for a number of different diseases including dementia and Parkinson's. So as a person living with MS, I also believe that it could be beneficial for my brain health.
If nothing else, dance makes me happy and that in itself is a recipe for being brain healthy!”
Leading a healthy lifestyle
Another part of keeping the brain in check is leading a healthy lifestyle. According to The MS Trust, leading a smoke-free, active lifestyle with a good diet can also maximise brain health.
Or in my words: leading a normal, active lifestyle with enough resting time.
My personal thoughts are that a good social life helps to train the brain too. Listening to others, keeping in touch by being a good friend and being around to help them as needed is a good way to keep the brain active and busy.
Taking control of stress and ensuring I get enough rest is another important part of my brain-training plan. I like to think of this as being on “stand-by mode”. I only allow myself to do the simplest things, to give my brain the time it needs to recover. I also find this helps me to calm down and re-focus.
UK/MED/20/0036 February 2020