If there is one thing to which we all can relate, it is the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic and the myriad of disease containment measures such as school closures, social distancing, and home quarantine – although certainly this is not the kind of relatable event we would want to connect us.
The results of these actions mean that children and adolescents are experiencing a prolonged state of physical isolation from their peers, teachers, extended families, and community networks. One recent study found that “children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and most likely anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends.”1 Certainly, we should not be surprised at these findings as we know quarantine in adults generally has negative psychological effects including confusion, anger and post-traumatic distress.2
In our neurology practice, we too have observed these impacts of prolonged social isolation and physical distancing as well as the potential decline in neuroplasticity due to the wearing of masks, especially among older populations.
Unfortunately, this is a very fluid situation as far as what measures may be ongoing or when we could expect something of a return to our pre-2020 lives. However, don’t lose hope! There are some positive things we can do right now to improve brain health as well as our overall wellbeing.
A bit of history.
Numerous animal studies in the past dating back to the 1940s have shown a correlation to social isolation and increased risk for mortality and as well ill health. One such study done in the 60s showed that rats exposed to “enriched environments” (those with a larger stomping ground, opportunities to socialize, and sensory-stimulating objects to play with) all had larger brains.3 More recent studies in animal models have shown that “environmental enrichment” can reduce reactivity to stress, lower anxiety, improve cognition, and enhance learning and memory.4 In many respects, it almost seems as if we are in a global, social experiment that is teaching us about the harmful effects of social isolation.
Think about how you may have been feeling over the last nine months or so – are you more forgetful, moody, and just stressed? When you look at the results of the studies in animal models, apply the parameters of having the same routine and NON-enriched environments, combined with a great deal of added worry and fears. The uncertainty of our future has culminated in one of the worst epidemics of poor brain health we have seen in recorded history. And the lack of newness or novelty of experiences, exploration and human connection are a setup for not only increasing depression and anxiety, but also putting our brains at greater risk of decline. So, what can we do to build a better brain?
Neuroplasticity: “Use it or lose it”...there’s a lot of neuroscience behind these words.
Neuroplasticity, or the capacity for our brain cells to change in response to our behavior, can help us more thoughtfully engage in activities that will contribute to our wellbeing, no matter our age. Neurogenesis is the ability to create new neurons and connections between neurons throughout a lifetime.
In order to give these processes a fighting chance in the face of much adversity, here are some of my tips for building a better brain through novel experiences. Remember, the brain needs exercise just like the body or it will wither away…plus, many of these activities afford the opportunity for making social connections that even virtually can contribute to a healthier brain. And some of the ideas may be things that you and your family (including even the most reluctant children) will enjoy doing together to help relieve the sense of isolation.
1. Turn off the news and give yourself a break from what is often a constant barrage of negativism and fear-provoking content.
2. Sleep well every night as much as that’s possible. If you are continually having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about possible remedies.
3. Eat healthy, whole foods vs. processed. A healthy diet means a healthy brain and body.
4. Find ways to stimulate your brain – that could mean trying a new activity or picking up a former hobby to direct your thinking toward something that will be beneficial, not harmful.
So what’s out there now to encourage neuroplasticity and neuron-building? We looked at a number of opportunities and programs and found a few options to consider for brain-boosting potential:
Learn a new language. In an intriguing study, a team of Canadian researchers explored the associations between bilingualism and Alzheimer’s disease. They concluded that bilingualism appears to contribute to cognitive reserve, which acts to compensate for the effects of accumulated neuropathology. Learning a new language is thought to be one of the best brain exercises and opens up a new world of social learning too as you discover other cultures.
Get started with Italki or Duolingo, which offers a free version for learning almost any language.
Consider acting or play-reading. Check out https://www.cmuse.org/learn-acting-lesson-online/ or https://www.playscripts.com/free-reads for something really different and fun!
Attend the theater virtually: https://broadwaydirect.com/where-to-watch-musicals-online-the-musical-lovers-guide-to-streaming/
Join a book club. Discussing books or ideas in a group is a great way to keep your brain agile. Just a few options through social media include: Monthly Book Club, Lost in a Good Book and Women Reading Great Books as well as other options like Good Reads and several choices identified by AARP at https://www.aarp.org/entertainment/books/info-2020/online-book-clubs-to-join/
Reading not only expands your vocabulary, it can activate visual and auditory processes as well as memory processing. Commit to learning just one new word each day and help give your brain a workout. Use apps or online courses to make it fun.
Have a real conversation with a friend or a loved one. Use your phone’s video calling option or a platform like Zoom to chat while you activate your visual senses to make more of a connection. And be sure to reach out to seniors with even just a regular call, especially if they already lived alone pre-pandemic. Extending some kindness to someone in need is like medicine for your spirits and theirs, too.
Discover a new way home and pay attention to your surroundings. As soon as a route gets familiar, find a new one to engage your brain’s hippocampus, which is the seat of learning and memory. A unique study showed that comparatively, London taxi drivers who adapt to different routes daily have a larger hippocampus (in the temporal lobe) than London bus drivers who typically travel the same routes.5
Learn to play a musical instrument. Research shows that the volume of grey matter in motor, auditory, and visuospatial cerebral areas is larger in musicians than non-musicians. So now might be a good time to visit YouTube’s extensive library of videos for lessons in everything from specific instruments to broader instruction in music theory to understanding and interpreting sheet music. There’s something to fit every learning style and every musical taste! And the opportunity to engage your brain’s processes in even the most basic things like practicing scales is applicable to other activities as well. You can also find a multitude of apps to make it more convenient to stick with your musical goals. Some to check out include: Music Tutor Free, Note Perfect, Simply Piano, Justin Guitar, and MANY more.
Music to your ears is magical for your brain. Listen to your favorite genre, learn the words to a song, and discover “binaural beats”, which are soundwaves in the alpha frequencies (8 to 13 Hz) that may encourage relaxation, promote positivity, and decrease anxiety. Binaural beats in the lower beta frequencies (14 to 30 Hz) also have been linked to increased concentration and alertness, problem solving, and improved memory. For music to meditate or just relax by, Icaros is our personal favorite.
For more about binaural beats, see: https://medium.com/syndicate-post/7-of-the-best-binaural-beats-you-can-listen-to-for-free-67d32154ad6c
Dancing is an excellent way to simultaneously engage several cognitive functions, providing a workout for your brain and your body. Ideally, if you do have a regular dance partner at home, switch up your roles (lead/follow) to gain the most brain benefits. Dancing alone to your favorite music is a great way to burn off some stress or anxiety, but if you do want to pursue some lessons you can find numerous options on YouTube or check out the recommendations at Broadway World for a variety of other free online sites.
Share your space with a pet. A survey of 14 community-dwelling adults aged 65 or older with pets by the journal Aging & Mental Health found that their pets might benefit them by “providing companionship, giving a sense of purpose and meaning, reducing loneliness and increasing socialization.”6 And it’s not just older adults who gain so much from the companionship of any kind of pet – visit our blog for more reasons to value our pets.
Explore new cuisines and expand your culinary skills. When you’re not supporting your favorite local restaurants by getting takeaway meals, it’s easy to learn a healthy new recipe from the bounty of cooking videos available online. For a few great ideas to start, see https://www.wellandgood.com/online-cooking-classes/
Stimulate your sense of smell. Of all five senses, smell is the one most closely linked to emotion and memory. This recent article in Medium offers some excellent tips for discovering the power of aromatherapy and surrounding yourself with healthful scents.
Be playful with board games, jigsaw puzzles or a game of catch with your kids (getting outside is a bonus too). Take a few minutes away from your home desk or household chores to do something that’s just plain fun! Your brain will definitely appreciate it.
Get creative and take up art of any kind from drawing or painting to crafts, embroidery and so much more. These activities enhance the connectivity of the brain at rest (the “default mode network” or DMN), which can boost introspection, memory, empathy, attention, and focus. Learn more about “art therapy” at https://positivepsychology.com/art-therapy/
You can find so many options for online arts instruction, but a couple of good places to start besides the go-to YouTube is Creative Bug at https://www.creativebug.com/, Artist Network at https://www.artistsnetwork.com/free-art-instruction/ and The Virtual Instructor, https://thevirtualinstructor.com/
Meditation when practiced regularly is a form of self-directed neuroplasticity. It is best to engage in some mindfulness work and breath-work along with focused concentration exercises or prayer to prime the brain for new learning and create greater meaning for belonging.
When you remember to breathe deeply, you can actually calm your body and mind. Findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that breathing does not merely supply oxygen to the brain and body, but may also organize the activity of populations of cells within multiple brain regions to help orchestrate complex behaviors.
Stay active and stay sharper! We’ve written extensively about the healthful value of getting out in nature and maintaining a regular exercise program of some kind. From walking or running to yoga, Pilates, or following along with a fitness video, staying fit (can benefit your brain and your heart too. Just be sure to check with your physician before beginning any new program.
Whatever you do now and going forward, it’s important to keep novelty alive to keep isolation at bay. We thrive from learning new things and staying connected - and while it may not be easy, try to put love, gratitude and joy at the forefront of your daily life too. It will do you and the ones you love a world of good.
In health and hope,
Dr. Suzanne Gazda
1 Loades, M. E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, M. N., Borwick, C., & Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 59(11), 1218–1239.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009
2 Bzdok, D., Dunbar, R.I.M. The Neurobiology of Social Distance. CellPress. https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(20)30140-6
3 Cooper R. M., Zubek J. P. (1958). Effects of enriched and restricted early environments on the learning ability of bright and dull rats. Can. J. Psychol. 12 159–164. 10.1037/h0083747
4 Ball, N. J., Mercado, E., 3rd, & Orduña, I. (2019). Enriched Environments as a Potential Treatment for Developmental Disorders: A Critical Assessment. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 466. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00466
5 Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 2006;16(12):1091-101. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20233. PMID: 17024677.
6 Genieve Zhe Hui Gan, Anne-Marie Hill, Polly Yeung, Sharon Keesing & Julie Anne Netto (2020) Pet ownership and its influence on mental health in older adults, Aging & Mental Health, 24:10, 1605-1612, DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2019.1633620