Your Health

Pandemic-proof brain: Preventing cognitive decline during COVID-19

Recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus infection statistics make for somber reading, with infections in excess of 10 million across the country and health experts predicting even more in the coming months and flu season.

Consequently, recommendations to shelter in place and practice social distancing are not likely to change any time soon. As essential as these recommendations are to limit contagion, they are not conducive to a healthy brain. The brain thrives on stimulation and connection, hard to come by during quarantine.

Neuroscientists encourage people to find ways to keep their brains engaged and prevent cognitive decline. Seniors with risk factors associated with neurocognitive disorders such Alzheimer’s disease and those with pre-existing cognitive disorders are particularly encouraged to exercise their gray matter.

Routine rules

The pandemic has changed daily schedules and routines. The closure of community centers, places of worship, schools and offices has resulted in the loss of structure in people’s lives. Many are waking up and going to bed later, eating breakfast for lunch and even staying in their pajamas all day.

The extra flexibility may seem like a welcome change, but it has a negative impact on brain health. The brain thrives on a regular schedule and prefers to focus its resources on looking for patterns in the environment, to enable it to predict future events. A continually changing or irregular routine puts a high cognitive load on the brain, forcing it to divert its resources to responding to unexpected changes rather than focusing on the task at hand.

By creating a routine during quarantine, you can ensure that the brain functions at its best during the lockdown.

Sleep soundly

Neurologists are calling the high incidence of disrupted sleep reported by many during quarantine “coronasomnia.”

A SleepStandards survey revealed that 98% of Americans are experiencing sleep problems since the onset of the
pandemic.

Sleep is integral to brain health. During sleep, the brain does its housekeeping, flushing out all the byproducts of neuronal activity with the aid of the body’s cerebral spinal fluid.

Insufficient or irregular sleep is associated with the buildup of amyloid plaque and tau protein, known contributors to dementia. Be sure to get enough sleep to protect the brain and body from aging prematurely. The brain undergoes structural and physiological changes during sleep that impact memory, learning, mood and energy levels.

Stop stress

Stress has many negative effects on the body and brain, including disrupted sleep and a weakened immune system, and is a risk factor for many psychiatric conditions. In addition, stress inhibits the expression of the neurotransmitter Brain-derived neurotrophic factor associated with neuronal regeneration and cognitive performance.

Physical activity is a powerful stress reliever and strongly correlated with cognitive performance. You don’t have to be a runner to get the brain benefits of exercise. Any type of physical activity, be it a brisk walk or gardening, is just as beneficial to the brain. If you want to stay inside, research into the brain benefits of yoga and mindfulness activities shows strong evidence of the ability of both to counteract stress and improve brain function. Consider joining an online yoga program, and an array of free mindfulness apps are available to download.

Boost the brain

Activities that stimulate the brain’s curiosity are excellent for brain health, as they promote new connections between neurons and brain regions, and strengthen existing ones. Try learning a new language or taking up a hobby, or join the masses on Zoom and take an online art or cooking class. Reading or listening to a book is a great way to keep the brain drain at bay, as is journaling or creative writing.

Continue connections

The brain is intrinsically social, and meaningful connections with others are at the heart of emotional and physical well-being. Even before social-distancing restrictions were in place and opportunities to meet and socialize dwindled, Americans were already reporting astronomical levels of loneliness. A January 2020 Cigna Loneliness survey reported that 61% of Americans felt socially disconnected and isolated, with younger generations the loneliest of all. Loneliness is associated with poor physical health and diminished cognitive performance, and contributes to higher levels of substance use, depression and suicidal ideation.

The staggering levels of loneliness may explain the 200% increase in the number of Americans reporting feelings of depression and anxiety in the October 2020 Household Pulse Survey, reflecting the jump from 11% in 2019 to 33% in 2020. Fostering and strengthening connections with family, friends and the wider community has never been more important than it is now. Be creative, and consider the myriad ways technology can help you stay connected while physically distant. Your brain and your mental health will be better for it.

Rita Hitching is a local researcher and teacher who writes on teen brain development. She uses the latest neuroscience data to explain how the teen body and brain develop and publishes those explanations on her website, teenbrain.info.

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