We all know that neurological disease can lead to cognitive impairment along with possible physical impairment. For many of us with MS, we may have noticed lapses in memory, ability to find the right word (tip of the tongue syndrome), unusual moodiness. Some of these things are part of the aging process, sometimes related to stress and/or hormones, and sometimes they are related to the disease.
How do we hold off these impairments? By the time we realize they exist, it may be too late as damage may have already been done. That's the scary part. However, we also know that the human brain is amazingly plastic and that we continue to learn things as we age, so continued brain stimulation by way of physical and mental exercise may help.
There is a hypothesis called the cognitive reserve hypothesis. It suggests that "enrichment protects against neurocognitive decline secondarily to disease" (from Wikipedia). "Lifetime intellectual enrichment (estimated with education or vocabulary knowledge) lessens the negative impact of brain disease on cognition, such that people with greater enrichment are able to withstand more severe neuropathology before suffering cognitive impairment or dementia." This is from the latest study of this hypothesis.
You can think of it this way. Two people contract a cold. One person is a health nut, eats right, exercises every day, gets the appropriate amount of sleep. The other person is a junk food junkie potato couch. The health nut has a good body reserve to fight off the cold within two days. The junkie, though, has no reserve and suffers for a week. The health nut has an "enrichment" of his health, the junkie doesn't.
The cognitive reserve hypothesis doesn't state that enrichment protects you from cognitive impairment; it simply lessens the negative impact. The two people I mentioned above both caught a cold, but one was impacted less than the other. Cool, eh? I thought so. And it's related to the current study I'm in, the one about cognitive impairment and brain connectivity. You can bet your boots I'll be watching for more studies on this topic.
Let's face it. We have MS. We know it's neurological and degenerative, affecting physical and cognitive abilities. Some of the damage we have little control over. But there are also some aspects over which we do have control. We can get on a disease modifying treatment as soon as possible. We can eat right, reduce stress, get the proper amount of sleep and rest, stimulate our minds and exercise smart.
I have talked about exercising smart before but will sum it up for new readers or to prod those of you who may have forgotten. Stimulate your mind: do puzzles, but do different ones every day. Mix 'em up. The brain is stimulated by new things. You can do a Sudoku one day, a crossword the next, maybe some logic puzzles the day after, but mix it up. By doing the same ones every day, you become good at those kinds of puzzles, but the brain isn't doing anything new, so doesn't get the same stimulation.
Exercising smart is a pretty easy one. If you go for walks or hikes or whatever and don't have an Ipod or MP3 player, try doing multiplication tables as you exercise, compose a letter in your mind, try to recall a favourite recipe from your childhood. If you have a portable media player, listen to an audiobook, or Spanish lessons, or music that you normally wouldn't listen to. You can download free stuff from the library. Take different routes when you walk or hike. Remember, the point is to give your brain something new to work on. In other words, exercise your mind and body at the same time.
Another way to think of it is like this: your brain looks for patterns, whether it's music or words or what you see. These patterns are ingrained in our brain after years, kind of like the beaten down paths from base to base on a ball field. your brain will take the path of least resistance. If you expose yourself to something new and different, your brain first goes "What?" and then starts to search for familiar patterns. Not finding any, it gets down to the business of processing the information, beginning to lay down a new path. That is stimulation. And it's a good thing.