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HealTHis: Cognitive

This is the third article in the series, taking a deeper dive into the cognitive aspects of health. Albeit not a long article, it will hopefully introduce the key points of an aspect of our health often overlooked.

In this part of the series, I’d like to talk about how active we keep our minds. As I’ve said previously, there will of course be some crossover, in particular with the upcoming knowledge blog, but also with the previous social article. While some of the suggestions and methods I’ll mention will work to improve more than one area of your health, I’ll endeavour to focus on the one in question when referencing certain studies and suggesting changes you can make to your routine to create improvements.

Whilst this is, for me, an extremely important aspect of our overall health, it’s possibly the one most people would see as the least connected to both what I do, and what we as a company do. Let me first then outline what I believe cognitive health to be. According to the Cambridge dictionary cognitive is “connected with thinking or conscious mental processes”. It’s the word processes that I’d like to first focus on. This conjures up images of cogs whirring, with an input being twisted and mangled to create some kind of output. Maybe this could be raw data going in, to form a knowledge based opinion coming out; think reading a few books on a particular subject, in order to reach a conclusion about certain specifics covered within the texts. It could also be a set of numbers, or perhaps a logic problem with which we’re presented, with the expectation being that we make sense of or solve the information we have been given. When the ability to perform these functions efficiently declines, one known condition is cognitive disorder. The symptoms of this are listed as confusion, loss of memory and impaired judgement, among others. It could be argued though, and I would suggest, that cognitive disorder itself is a symptom. The generic term for a group of symptoms such as those mentioned is dementia, with one known disease causing these symptoms, being Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is progressive, with symptoms continuing to worsen over time. Whilst old age is the biggest risk factor, it is not a normal part of ageing. At present, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, though symptoms can seemingly be temporarily slowed.

As with most chronic diseases, prevention is seen as the best cure. The Alzheimer’s Society list, in order, the following measures one should take to reduce their risk:

  1. Be physically active - both aerobically and using resistance exercises.

  2. Eat healthily

  3. Don’t smoke

  4. Drink less alcohol

  5. Exercise your mind

While research is far from conclusive, the empirical evidence suggests that lifestyle factors affect risk. Although nutrition and exercise rank more highly on the list, we’ll be revisiting those areas in a later article, so for the sake of this edition, we’re going to look more closely at exercising the mind. (Not smoking and not drinking as much are valid, but self explanatory and also heavily advocated through various sources already.)

We’ve known for some time that brain training techniques form new neuro-connections, whilst preserving older ones. In addition to keeping your brain healthier, regular puzzles or challenges can act as a self diagnosis tool. If you notice that you’re gradually taking longer to complete your daily brain teaser, crossword or sudoku puzzle, it might be time for a visit to your doctor.

Different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions, covering everything from numbers to reasoning and logic, to memory and information recall. Just like the advice we’d give people in the gym, work on what you need the most, not what you’re best at. If you struggle with numbers, make those your daily focus, maybe throwing in a logic puzzle, some anagrams and a Kim’s game on a weekly basis. This is all great in theory, but in practise, these things are time consuming to implement, and often fall out of your mind before they become a good habit. Listed below are just a few ideas I’d suggest to build some brain training into your daily schedule without being too demanding on your time, or too intrusive.

Do a puzzle whilst you eat your lunch. Research tells us that those who try to work through their lunch are actually less productive across the whole day than those who take a break to eat away from their desk, or other work station. Interestingly, this is true regardless of how many hours per week are worked, type of job or age. With that in mind, tape a puzzle from a magazine or newspaper (or print one) to the top of your lunchbox. (If you don’t use a lunchbox, you will after we talk nutrition in a few weeks time). Complete the puzzle whilst you eat. This has the added benefit of slowing down your eating, which in itself is a good habit to develop.

Avoid calculators. Since the mobile phone, complete with calculator, became widespread, we have one at our fingertips almost all of the time. This has undoubtedly led to a decline in the requirement to perform mental arithmetic. Keep your phone in your pocket, and use your head for addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, and maybe even some averages and other formulae you use on a regular basis. Try adding up your shopping in your head as you go, and see how close you are once at the checkout. Split restaurant bills in your head, and calculate percentage based tips mentally. If you use the gym, calculate your weights by percentage in your head, and if you run, work out your average time per mile or kilometre as you go. Convert pounds to kilos, and back again, for the sake of it. You can do the same for miles and kilometres. Learn the conversions, commit them to memory, then use them frequently. You’ll be surprised how quickly you improve! You’ve probably guessed it by now, but all of this brain training won’t just protect you in the future, it will actually help you right now too!

Learn a new subject. We all have our preferred medium, whether it be videos, podcasts or a traditional book. Read the subject matter and try to reason the content through in your head. Engage in conversation with a like minded friend or family member and try to have debates based in logic. Whilst logic and reasoning can be improved to some degree through puzzles and games, a real life conversation is far more interactive and challenging, and helps us achieve the social health we have talked about previously! It should go without saying here, that in addition to keeping your mind sharp, all the new information you’re absorbing along the way will come in pretty useful at some point too!

Write. Whether it be a diary, a journal, a blog, or just a periodic rant in a discussion group online, put your thoughts, opinions and feelings down on paper {or electronically} as much for you to read back as for others to see. If you have a thought that you feel is particularly important or inspiring, share it, even if only with your future self.

Discuss your ideas. We’re all guilty of getting lost in our train of thought, losing objectivity and blinkering ourselves to many ideas and opinions that might serve us far better. Discuss your opinions and views with friends, family or colleagues. This will not only challenge your views, forcing you to reason, but will strengthen your social bonds at the same time.

Whether you choose to implement one, or all of these ideas, or maybe go with one that’s completely your own, you can take comfort in knowing that at the very least you’re improving your cognitive function compared to right now. It’s often the case that people look at ideas, guidance or advice and are overwhelmed by the number of suggestions, forgetting that even implementing one small change into their lives, is an improvement. As with any lifestyle changes, pick something that doesn’t take too much time or effort, and is sustainable. Once it’s a regular part of your routine that you no longer see as a chore, try adding something else in. As a bonus, you can try implementing one of these whilst on your ten minute walks, to be covered in a later article!

For now, please feel free to comment with your own ideas, or stories about cognitive decline in yourself, or friends and family, and any methods you might’ve found to be useful.


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