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How do you keep your brain fit when you have MS?

There is a lot of talk about brain health and how to keep your brain as healthy and fit as possible. But what does this really entail?

In this blog Helena from the MS Trust information and engagement team explores some ideas on how to improve your brain health.

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Have you heard people talking about brain health in MS and wondered what they actually mean? In MS the immune system mistakenly attacks and damages tissue in the brain and spinal cord, this can result in lesions (scars) that can be seen on a MRI scan. As the brain is a clever organ, it can compensate for some of this damage by rerouting signals or adapting healthy areas of the brain to take on new functions. This capacity is known as ‘neurological reserve’ or ‘brain health’. 

Last year a new report called Brain Health: Time Matters in Multiple Sclerosis came out, this was an international report written by a multidisciplinary group and chaired by neurologist Professor Gavin Giovannoni from the UK. The report made the case for a new strategy for treating MS, and the main focus was on brain health and how it could help people with MS.

So knowing this, it makes sense for us to keep our brains as healthy and fit as we possibly can. But how can you achieve this if you have MS?

 The main points from the Brain health report were:

  • Keeping as fit and active as you can through regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Keeping your mind active 
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Limiting how much alcohol you drink
  • Continuing to take any other medicines that your doctor has prescribed.

Some of these are fairly straight forward, such as avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol and continuing to take other medicines you have been prescribed. But how to keep your mind healthy and active is perhaps less obvious. We asked MS nurse adviser Vicki Matthews and the people in our MS Trust Facebook group for their tips on the best ways to keep your mind active, this is what they said.

Keeping your mind active and healthy

Vicki Matthews has some good suggestions on what you can do to maintain brain health through keeping your mind active. She compares the brain to any other muscle of the body, it needs both exercise and rest. It is important not to forget the rest element, try to recognise when you are getting cognitive fatigue and let your brain have a rest then, perhaps turn your mobile off and do nothing for a little while. Vicki also says it is important to get a good night's sleep for the brain to get a proper rest. 

When it comes to the part about keeping the mind active, it can be as easy, or as complicated, as you like. Games are a good way to exercise the brain and thought processes, especially puzzle games like sudoku for example, which are easily found in magazines, shops and online. 

"Jigsaws. Now I can't manage them on a table I do them on my iPad."

Christine, MS Trust Facebook group

One thing that really gets the brain going is learning a new skill. This could be something ambitious like a new language or perhaps something a little less taxing like learning a new exercise. Other ideas could be learning to sing, draw or dance! 

“I often share ideas about the benefits of learning a new skill to keep the mind active. In fact I myself make a point of learning something new each year, last year it was crocheting.”  

Mary Fraser, MS Nurse

"What's relaxing for me is playing the guitar. As my teacher told me, playing the guitar requires both parts of the brain to work."

Mateusz, MS Trust Facebook group

Be kind to your mind

Mindfulness is another way to be kind to your mind. If you are not familiar with it, mindfulness is a meditative technique that involves learning to focus attention on emotions, sensations and thoughts in an accepting and non-judgemental way. By focusing fully on the present moment, rather than on regret for the past or worries about the future, mindfulness can help to break the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions. Some of our Facebook group members had even tried a combination of learning a new skill and mindfulness together.

" I go to a mindfulness art class once a week, not only is it fun but I have three hours of not worrying about MS .  It takes part in the local church . We tend to do arts and crafts, a cup of tea and biscuits and a general chitchat . Once a month a counsellor attends the group and anyone can discuss problem's and any difficulties caused by any ongoing illness or mental health issues. It's great fun, with interesting people."

Sam, MS Trust Facebook group

Several people told us they really enjoy knitting or crocheting. It requires you to follow a pattern and also to keep your fingers busy, whilst the body can relax. If you don't want to sit and do it alone or if you'd like to learn how to do it, most places have local knitting, stitching or crochet groups, where people can meet up have a chat and do their handicraft.  
" I love relaxing in front of a good movie with some knitting. Pick a complicated pattern and there's plenty of brain work involved!"
 
Pia, MS Trust Facebook group
 
 We had lots of other great suggestions in the Facebook group from people and what really came through was that it didn't need to be complicated or expensive to keep your mind active.

"Cooking. It needs a sequence of actions. If I forget one part I sit and think rather than get frustrated. Then there are crosswords and writing and following lost causes in football."

Stephen, MS Trust Facebook group

So there is lots you can do to keep your brain active, from the very ambitious to just doing your everyday chores. What do you do to keep your mind active? Please let us know in the comments below!