Spotlight on Brain Health During COVID-19
Have you felt that your brain is not quite running the way it did before the world was upended by coronavirus? I’ve had an increasing number of friends and family describe having trouble thinking of a word they want to say, expressing their thoughts clearly, or being more forgetful than usual, to name a few. There are many factors that can cause temporary (thankfully!) changes to the way our brains function. As many of us are picking up new healthy habits to protect our bodies, it’s important to draw attention to the habits that can keep our brains healthy during this time, too.
My body has been sending me all kinds of stress signals these days: trouble falling asleep… check. Trouble staying asleep… check. Heartburn… check. Quick temper… check. Stress can take a toll on the body, but did you know that it can also make the mind feel foggy, too? A friend recently shared that she “can’t talk at all lately,” using jumbled words and struggling to complete her thoughts. She asked me if I thought she was having a stroke. In the absence of any other stroke symptoms, I said I thought it was unlikely. I explained to her that stress might be the culprit as the brain can have increased difficulty with complex thought, word sequencing, and even slowed or slurred speech when experiencing significant stress or depression. What to do? Simple things like taking a bath, calling a friend, working out, practicing yoga, listening to music, meditating, and deep breathing can all be effective in bringing stress levels under better control.
Being tired from not enough or poor quality sleep can take a toll on our language, memory, and attention skills. This might result in having difficulty recalling a recent conversation, repeating yourself, or walking into a room having no idea what you came in for (so frustrating!). Don’t fear, if these are relatively new or temporary patterns, it’s unlikely you’ve developed an acute case of dementia. Episodic experiences of forgetfulness or difficulty paying attention can be caused by sleep woes and unmanaged stress. What to do? Taking care of sleep means trying to avoid screen time at least 1-2 hours before bed. If you have anxious thoughts that prevent you from sleeping, write them down in a journal next to your bed. And, be sure to get some plenty of physical exercise and brain activity in during the day so that you are tired enough to sleep when you go to bed.
Exercise, both physical and cognitive, is a very important for supporting brain health. But, how do you exercise if you can’t go outside or to the gym like you used to? As much as you are able, try to find a place where you can get a walk in and don’t feel like you’ll be violating social distancing precautions. At least 30 minutes of exercise that gets your heartrate up is recommended not only for your cardiovascular health, but to keep your lungs and immune system strong, too. If you cannot get out, check in with your local community or fitness center to see if they are offering online classes to members. Keep your brain active in the absence of your usual activities by doing puzzles, writing or drawing creatively, tackling a home organization task, or learning a new skill or language. Or, why not combine the two? Cardiomelon (www.cardiomelon.com) is an online fitness subscription that combines brain tasks with physical exercises geared specifically for adults over 40. Members might be asked to march in place while doing simple math problems or name cities while doing lunges to work a broad range of thinking skills while addressing strength, balance, and cardiovascular health. Workouts are 20-30 minutes long and offer a fun way to get your brain and body working without having to leave home.
Alison Weinlaeder is a Speech-Language Pathologist who treats adult neurocognitive disorders in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is the founder of Cardiomelon.