By: Maggie Harling
I normally write about physical exercise and how it helps me thrive, but this month I thought I’d talk about the benefits of mental exercise. The term “use it or lose it” applies to everyone, but particularly to those of us with neurodegenerative diseases such as MS. As plaque appears in our brains, the neural pathways through those areas get tangled and diminished and the problem may result in cognitive change. All is not lost however, if we can actively work on finding ways around the plaques.
“Neuroplasticity” refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the brain cells to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment. (MedicineNet). Neuroscientists who study neuroplasticity have demonstrated clear improvement in the brains of injured people who have undergone various types of brain training. Unfortunately however, this research is still very much in the early stages and no clear methodologies have emerged for helping MS patients.
So, where does that leave us? In the absence of MS specific brain training my approach over the years has been to see what works for me.
- Aerobic exercise. This has long been shown to improve brain function. I swim laps at the local Y at least three times a week. I also ride horses every week at a therapeutic riding stable. Other occasional pursuits include kayaking, biking and skiing (thanks to MS Cure!). I also do yoga.
- Language Learning. There’s a great FREE app. called DUOLINGO. You can learn any one of a number of languages in brief daily lessons. It took me a year and a half to gain some mastery of Spanish and I’m now half way through Portuguese.
- Brain Training apps. I’ve tried a number of these (free ones) including Lumosity and Fit Brains. I eventually got bored with all but one, “Yoga for the brain” which I still do faithfully.
- Get Involved. Over time I’ve moved away from online pursuits and found myself getting involved in advocacy groups. I love to write so I’ve been doing this blog for MS Cure for about six months and I love it. I also took a novel writing course at the local art museum (no, it’s not finished yet…). Very recently, I joined a non-partisan group, the League of Women Voters, and a piece I wrote for them has been published in a local newspaper!
In summary, don’t let this disease take over your life. Some days it would seem so easy to just roll over and play dead. Don’t. Stay active and enjoy your life.