Even though we have been dealing with an international pandemic, research is showing us the value of an overall approach to brain health. Longitudinal research is always especially valuable because it is more than a snapshot in time. In a longitudinal study started in 1936 that has continued through 2021, researchers compared two years before the pandemic and pandemic data.1 Variables studied include physical activity, sleep quality, mental wellbeing, social support, loneliness, neighborhood cohesion and memory problems before and during the pandemic lockdown. Not surprising were the findings that participants with cardiovascular disease, higher anxiety, or who lived alone reported more negative changes. The average level of the participants’ physical activity was reduced.
What was surprising—those with lower activity two years prior actually improved their activity level during the lockdown by 9%. Also positive was the increase in the participants’ perception of social support. Analysis of these outcomes found that higher cognitive ability, emotional stability and extraversion were associated with positive outcomes.
Research continues to link brain health to physical activity. A study looking at rest-activity functioning and white matter in older adults at risk for dementia considered the least active five-hour period among other variables. White matter atrophy was associated with those who became inactive for a five hour stretch earlier in a 24-hour day.2 Equally detrimental to the brain’s white matter was higher Body Mass Index and greater depression.
How do we translate this research in stepping up our brain game? Let’s look at the positives. We may not be able to change our personality but we can tend to our medical needs. If you are having trouble sleeping—schedule an appointment with a doctor. If your mental health has taken a downward turn, consult a mental health professional. If you are lonely, reach out to someone else who may be as well. These may look like monumental steps or like miniscule steps—but clearly the research shows they are far-reaching brain-healthy steps.
COVID-19 has had a powerful impact on our lives. But we see positive as well as negative results in research. There has been an increase in outdoor exercise with healthier air quality. We have an increase in app-based exercise with online partners.3 Technology has brought family and work teams and neighbors closer. Stepping up for brain health is a stepping into the world of new approaches in order to maintain and strengthen our brain game.
1Okely JA, Corley J, Welstead M, Taylor AM, Page D, Skarabela B, Redmond P, Cox SR, Russ TC. Change in Physical Activity, Sleep Quality, and Psychosocial Variables during COVID-19 Lockdown: Evidence from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Dec 30;18(1):210. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18010210. PMID: 33396611; PMCID: PMC7795040.
2Palmer JR, Duffy SL, Meares S, Pye J, Calamante F, Cespedes M, Hickie IB, Naismith SL. Rest-activity functioning is related to white matter microarchitecture and modifiable risk factors in older adults at-risk for dementia. Sleep. 2021 Jan 11:zsab007. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsab007. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33428761.
3Müller P, Achraf A, Zou L, Apfelbacher C, Erickson KI, Müller NG. COVID-19, physical (in-)activity, and dementia prevention. Alzheimers Dement (N Y). 2020 Oct 12;6(1):e12091. doi: 10.1002/trc2.12091. PMID: 33083514; PMCID: PMC7550554.