Our guide to working around the current challenges to cognitive fitness

All those precautions you’re taking to stay safe during the pandemic? Ironically, they might be putting your brain’s health at risk.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, Next Avenue, brain health

“Our heavy reliance on technology, not seeing family and grandkids, putting off doctor’s appointments, not going to the gym and a lack of physical touch, of socializing, and of purpose – all lead to ‘negative neuroplasticity,’ the potential to accelerate the risk for cognitive decline,” says former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, now distinguished professor of public health at Arizona State and the author of “30 Days to a Better Brain.”

“Brain health is even more important now because so much is under threat,” he says. The answer? Flip COVID-19’s challenges to opportunities, says neuroscientist Prioritizing brain self-care pays off in the long-term, she says. “And the brain’s neuropharmacy changes — you get a dose of dopamine — just by telling yourself, ‘I can do this; it can happen.'”Sandra Bond Chapman, founder of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “For everything you do, ask, ‘What is this adding to my life?’ Are you doing crosswords just to pass the time and not be alone? Or are you doing different kinds of activities to stretch your mind and add meaning and purpose?”

Sandra Bond Chapman, founder of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas

Did you join the COVID-19 jigsaw craze? Though these puzzles are cognitively beneficial, it’s important to vary the types of thinking skills that you engage. Try the free Brain Performance Challenge app from the Center for BrainHealth, which measures your strategy, reasoning and innovation skills.

Aim to innovate seven times a day. It’s Chapman’s favorite mental challenge. “Rather than be discouraged by negativity or things falling apart, say ‘OK, how can I improve to make it different or new?’ It could be anything from how you write a subject line [in email] or what you cook.”

Nurture a new pet — or a winter herb garden. Dogs, especially, tick the boxes of providing new experiences, exercise, purpose and companionship, Lock says. Recent research finds they improved mental health during the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown. (Birdwatching worked, too.)

“If you don’t have a pet, the next best thing is a garden,” Chapman says. “There’s always something new to do or see.”


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Published in next avenue November 2020