(Knowing what I know, Part 3)
Knowing what you know about Alzheimer’s disease, what do you do differently in your own life?
Last year I began a series of posts in response to this question, and got distracted and didn’t get far. But life in a pandemic has got me thinking quite a lot about one very important aspect of brain health: staying cognitively active. So I’m digging this thread back up (my first two responses were about advance care planning and physical activity), and rest assured I’ve got lots more to say on the subject.
Staying cognitively active looks different for everyone, and there’s no one best way to do it. Sure you can do lofty things like finish the Sunday crossword or learn a new language. But you can also just cook a new recipe, or turn off the “fastest route” option on your GPS and take a new route home. (Better yet, turn it off altogether, and figure out a different way home yourself.) Learn a new word, make a new friend, see a new view. New experiences create neural pathways, and a lifetime of new experiences creates a “cognitive reserve” your brain can draw from should it be required (due to illness, trauma, or neurodegenerative disease). Novelty is the key.
Occasional changes of scenery. Local parks and day hikes in the Cleveland National Forest and at Torrey Pines State Beach have provided some much-needed color, water, and dirt.
One of the most common pieces of advice I see in the articles I’ve been reading about how to manage one’s mental health during this long period of self-quarantine is to keep your regular daily rituals intact to the extent that you can, and maintain as much routine as possible. This is sound but problematic advice for a person such as myself who never had any routine. Some habits, sure. But aside from a bit of quiet reading with a cup of coffee every morning, I had very little ritual. Sometimes I ran in the morning, but not always. Sometimes two days a week, sometimes four. I had a favorite Sunday morning Pilates class at the YMCA, but managed to make it there once a month at best. As a health educator, I led programs all over a huge county, on a completely irregular schedule. I had an office, but almost never worked the same hours or in the same place two days in a row. And try as I did, I never managed to maintain a sleep routine. Consistently up at varying degrees of “early,” but never able to pull off a regular bed time. Because I traveled the county so much for work, every week I could find a new place to run after work, or a new grocery store to pick up things for dinner. I met new people almost every day. Novelty was really my only routine.
Life in self-quarantine has changed all of that. Now I work in the same place every day, staring into a computer from about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. I still lead a lot of education programs at Alzheimer’s San Diego, but I don’t get to see anyone’s faces (except for my co-workers, on a screen), and very rarely meet anyone new. I don’t shop in interesting new markets or run in unusual places. I grieve these losses daily, and worry about the long-term cognitive impacts of all of this sameness.
But on the other hand: the pandemic has nudged me into a life with some structure, and I’m cultivating some practices that I hope will serve me (and my brain) in the long run. I consistently run three days a week now – still different distances and times of day, though, because I’m not a robot. I take a daily walk. The instructor of that Sunday Pilates class I loved so much but could never get to does Tuesday night classes on Zoom now, and I don’t think I’ve missed one since May. I eat a real lunch every day, and am in bed by 10 more often than not. We cook up a big healthy dinner at home six nights a week, and get take-out from different local restaurants on Sunday nights – my favorite of the new routines. And the biggest surprise of all: I clean the house regularly, and do some laundry almost every weekend. (Almost. I still really hate laundry.) I’ve never been much of a housekeeper, but now that I spend nearly every waking moment at home, it’s taken on new importance. I love this new world of pouring one’s morning coffee in a tidy kitchen, pacing during work calls on clean floors, and crawling into a neatly-made bed at night. I didn’t learn how to bake bread, tie-dye my t-shirts, or do any of the dance challenges, but have loved watching people find creative ways to incorporate fun, novelty, and learning into these long, weird days. For my part, I’m challenging myself to feel content for now in a quieter, smaller world, where every day kind of looks the same.