I’m often asked to speak about multiple sclerosis (MS) on podcasts. I tend to get passionate when talking about mobility aids, accessibility, or bladder function, but I sometimes forget the specific question I was asked by the time I get to the end of my enthusiastic address.
I read before bed every night, but most nights I spend half this time rereading what I’ve just read the night before. Meanwhile, if someone tries to engage me in a conversation, I always have to turn off the music or television that’s competing for my attention.
If you have MS like I do, its effects on your cognitive function may be to blame for things like compromised concentration, word finding, difficulty with decision making, or switching quickly between tasks. Our minds are responsible for how we think, react, learn, and retain information, and MS can have a negative impact on these important functions.
According to the National MS Society, more than half of all people with MS will experience MS-related cognitive changes at some point. Even without an MS diagnosis, many people experience a decline in cognitive function with age.
Even if you don’t notice changes, it makes sense to start training your brain early to keep your mind sharp for decades to come.
The good news is that anyone can increase their cognitive skills at any point, and investing in cognitive health is not only fun, but the payoff is rewarding. The key to creating cognitive resilience is to look for activities that are challenging and new.
Here are my top 10 favorite ways to keep your mind sharp with MS.
Video games challenge us to solve problems. Research shows that gamers are measurably better at sustaining focus and multitasking.
However, if you’re seeing Tetris blocks when you close your eyes at night, it’s time to move on and find a new game that feels difficult. Our brains thrive on novelty, and once you’ve gotten pretty good at a game, the brain-boosting benefits may start to wear off.
Research shows that people who speak two or more languages are better at switching between tasks and have better memory, visual-spatial skills, and creativity.
With language-learning software at all price points, it’s never been easier to brush up on the second language you learned in high school or to tackle a new language.
I like to follow social media accounts in foreign languages for a fun way to get some everyday exposure to the languages I’ve learned.
Travel is one of the best ways to challenge our brains with new experiences that engage all our senses.
Learning how to get around in a new place, enjoying a different climate, and getting out of your routine all have cognitive benefits.
If you’re learning a new language, it also gives you an opportunity to take your developing language skills and use them in the real world.
Even when you make a mistake like I did when I commented on the beautiful French meal I’d been served that was sans préservatifs (which means “without condoms” in French), your hosts will appreciate your effort. (The French don’t typically put condoms in their food, and I’m not aware of any cultures that do.)
If getting on a plane isn’t your jam (or, you know, there’s a pandemic) you don’t have to travel far from home. Even mixing up your routine by visiting a park within driving distance can give you a brain boost.
If leaving home isn’t an option, try a recipe from another culture using ingredients you aren’t familiar with. Or, set your playlist to music from that culture while you cook and have dinner.
It goes without saying that we learn new things and increase our vocabulary when we read, but reading can also help improve our memory and stimulate our brains.
Bonus points for reading a real book made of paper: Some older research suggests we’re less likely to retain something read on a screen versus in a physical book.
We can improve our cognitive performance with lifestyle choices like getting enough rest and water, pacing ourselves, and taking breaks when we need them.
A regular meditation practice can keep our stress in check and improve cognition. By getting us in the habit of paying attention to the things we do on autopilot, we’re less likely to take off our makeup with nail polish remover.
Research shows that lifelong learning can improve cognitive function. While studies tend to focus on older adults, anyone can benefit from the brain-boosting effects of learning something new.
I’m almost always taking a class. Art history, screenplay writing, improv, Spanish, Italian, and singing lessons are all subjects I’ve studied in the years since my MS diagnosis.
Whatever you’re curious about and whatever your budget, chances are there’s an online or in-person course where you can learn more. Check with location organizations, like art museums, libraries, and community centers, to learn about any free or low-cost classes they may host.
Exercise can have a positive impact on a number of MS symptoms, like spasticity, bowel dysfunction, and even fatigue. But movement — especially the kind that gets our heart rates up — is particularly beneficial for our cognitive function.
If you’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano that’s been collecting dust in your living room, now you have a medical reason to do so.
Playing an instrument is a powerhouse route to improving cognition as your vision, coordination, hearing, and memory are all engaged in this challenging activity.
Ditch your calculator or your GPS. Proofread your document before you hit spell-check. Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand. Take a different route to work or on a walk.
So much of our routines are automatic. When we disrupt our daily patterns, we make our brains work harder.
It can be tempting to isolate yourself when symptoms are severe. However, friendships and other healthy relationships are key to a life well-lived.
A 2021 study of those with new MS diagnoses found social support was associated with better mental health, quality of life, and subjective cognitive function — and less fatigue.
If you’re concerned about your cognitive function, ask your doctor for testing that can help identify areas of strength and weakness. It was validating for me to learn that my difficulty remembering faces was a bona fide symptom of my MS — and not just a personality deficit.
Even if you’re not experiencing changes, if you have MS, it’s a good idea to get a baseline. Your doctor can help you identify problem areas and build a plan to optimize your cognitive function.
The key to successfully investing in the way we think, learn, and remember is to find activities that are enjoyable. Always be on the lookout for new experiences, and your brain will thank you for years to come!
Article originally appeared on August 20, 2021 on Bezzy’s sister site, Healthline. Last medically reviewed on August 20, 2021.
About the author
Ardra Shephard is the influential Canadian blogger behind Tripping On Air – the award-winning, irreverent and funny insider scoop about life with MS. Ardra is a story consultant for television network AMI and has partnered with Shaftesbury Films to develop a scripted series based on her life with MS. Follow Ardra on Facebook, and on Instagram where Yahoo Lifestyle reported that “@ms_trippingonair is the number one chronic illness account to follow.”