How Can I Keep My Brain as Sharp as Possible?

BrainQ. The pandemic has been stressful for us all. My husband and I are staying in most of the time and having groceries and other items delivered to our home. We used to stay active and interact with people all the time at gatherings and at the local senior center. My thirty-year-old daughter once even commented that we have a better social life than her!

Since the pandemic started, I miss the engaging conversations I used to have with others at the card games they used to hold at the senior center and the lively interaction at the book clubs. Lately I feel like I am not as sharp as I used to be, and that my brain cells are dying (or simply collecting dust) from being underused. It’s a terrible feeling when I used to have a great memory and excellent recall. Do you have any advice on ways I can keep my neurons fired up and my brain sharp? I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t use it, and then they lose it. Thanks for your help!

A. To say that the pandemic has been challenging for us all would be a huge understatement. Staying active and socially engaged has certainly been challenging when it is advised to social distance and many activities just aren’t occurring as they had in the past. However, according to CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, it’s not only important to find a way to stay active, but as you mentioned, to put more focus on the control center of the body: our brain.

Dr. Gupta, who also serves as the associate chief of neurosurgery at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital has guided Americans through the spikes and surges of COVID-19 on television. As he was doing so, he wrote and published a book, “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age,” which explains why it’s important to keep your brain sharp and how best to do so.

Why is Brain Health So Important?

In his book, Dr. Gupta explains why brain health is so important. He explains how everything is derived from the brain and how you’re much more likely to improve all other aspects of your health if you start with your brain health. According to Dr. Gupta, “(w)ith brain health comes better judgment. You’ll make better decisions about the other things in your life that affect your health, such as how you nourish your body.”

Dr. Gupta questions the “idea that we think it’s preordained that we’re going to lose cognitive function.” In his opinion, your ability to process, understand, and apply knowledge “can actually get sharper and better as you get older. It is sort of the use it or lose it phenomenon when it comes to the brain.”

Dr. Gupta believes that there are certainly some things you can do to keep your brain healthy and sharp during these challenging times, and possibly stave off loss of memory and cognitive function. Here are some suggestions from his book:

Keep things from being predictable and repetitive: For most of us, life has a really predictable, repetitive nature to it. But if you open up other roads in your brain, things happen as a result. Dr. Gupta explains how you can even start to connect patterns from different parts of your life that you were missing before. So, change things up a bit throughout the day. For instance, if you’re right-handed, try eating with your left hand — or vice versa if you are a lefty. If you wear a necktie, close your eyes and practice tying it in the dark. “No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to develop new brain pathways,” Dr. Gupta says.
Learn new things: Interested in learning a new skill in the new year? According to Dr. Gupta, “(t)he act of experiencing something new can generate new brain cells. We want to constantly be using new paths and trails and roads within our brain.”
Get 7-9 hours of sleep each night for optimal brain health: Dr. Gupta explains how while we are sleeping, what we are doing is consolidating memories. All the interesting experiences throughout your day — people that you’ve met, conversations you’ve had, experiences you’ve had, whatever it may be — may be things that you want to remember and add to your life narrative. According to Dr. Gupta, “(t)he process of actually putting them in the memory book, if you will … really happens at the time that you sleep. That’s the “consolidation of memory” sort of phase. Some of it is actually placing the memory. Some of it is moving memories from short-term to longer-term memory. So, you have to be able to sleep well in order to remember well.”
Do crossword puzzles and other brain training exercises: Crossword puzzles and brain training exercises can be quite helpful at making the roads in your brain that you use a lot already, and keeping them strong. Some brain games can actually even increase your processing speed, the speed at which you process new content and new information. However, Dr. Gupta cautions, “(b)e sure to continue to do different things, as opposed to doing the same thing better and better. Try things that get you outside your comfort zone — it’s probably going to have a much bigger payoff.”
Multitasking doesn’t really work: The idea that you move from one task to another sounds great and very efficient. According to brain scans though, you actually expend quite a bit of energy just to switch from one task to another. So, according to Dr. Gupta, “(y)ou think you’re doing both simultaneously, but you’re probably doing neither as well as you could be, and you’re probably going to take more time than if you just did them linearly in some way.” So, avoid multitasking all of the time if that’s something you typically try to do.
Stress isn’t all bad: According to Dr. Gupta, stress is not necessarily the enemy. In fact, we need a certain amount of stress it’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, makes us perform well on tests, etc. But unrelenting stress can be problematic. You need breaks from stress and a constant sort of ebb and flow, and that’s what’s missing for many of us during the pandemic. Dr. Gupta says, “(w)e all need a sort of up and down to some extent and the idea of eliminating stress … it is not attainable nor is it necessarily a good idea for the brain.”

For more details, listen to a recent interview with Dr. Gupta here.  For additional articles from the Farr Law Firm about brain health, please click here.

Plan in Advance for Peace of Mind

It is important to do what you can to keep your brain sharp during the pandemic and always. Hopefully some of Dr. Gupta’s suggestions prove to be helpful. It is also important to plan in advance for much needed peace of mind! If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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