The old cliché is true when we talk of cognition – “use it or lose it”.
Our brains are made of billions of neurons, which interact with each other to complete specific tasks. Signals are sent from one neuron to another along neural pathways, and these determine our thoughts, emotions, insights, and so much more. Each task relies on a different neural pathway, so the pathway for reading a book is different than the pathway for putting on our shirt. The more we use a pathway, the stronger the connection becomes.
These neurons have the ability to physically change themselves when faced with new and difficult experiences. This ability is called neuroplasticity. As we are exposed to new areas, tasks, information or experiences, neural pathways are formed and existing ones are reshaped. This will continue throughout our entire lives as we learn. As we have experienced through practicing a musical instrument, memorizing our shopping list or recalling a friend’s phone number, if we consciously focus and train our brains in a certain area, they will become faster and more efficient at performing those tasks.
Just as we need to exercise the muscles in our body, we also need to exercise our brain.
Some great ways to keep “work up a cognitive sweat” include:
Online cognitive training programs and apps
Playing board games
Completing puzzles such as a daily crossword or Sudoku
In recognition of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, I wanted to touch on the important topic of helping people with Alzheimer’s disease (or cognitive impairment) to be safe in the community.
A few months back I received an email from a friend. She wanted to “pick my brain” about a problem they were encountering with her father who has Alzheimer’s disease. She mentioned that he enjoys spending time in the community on his own, but the family was growing increasingly concerned about his safety. She was wondering if I had any suggestions on how they could monitor his community activities, and be able to locate him should he not return home when expected.
My experience working in brain injury has had me looking for such solutions in the past. Some people, with behavioral or cognitive impairment, are at risk in the community because they become disoriented, confused, lose track of time, or are not attentive to traffic. There is such a loss of independence for people to be told they cannot leave the home alone, and some become agitated or angry when people try to supervise their activities. Yet, even a familiar route can become a problem for people if their cognitive status changes or deteriorates, and what is manageable one day may become problematic the next. Part of my role as an occupational therapist when dealing with cognitive impairment is to problem solve with the client and family the ways we can help them to pursue their goal of independence outside the home, while also ensuring their safety and easing the mind of the care provider. There are several ways to do this, and the list below is not exhaustive by any means.
Consider the local Police Departments. These often have programs and ways to track people at risk of wandering. It is also helpful to notify the police about a potential wanderer so this is in their records should their help be needed.
The S-911 bracelet has multiple features that allows health care workers and families to GPS locate anyone that may have wandered off, or who is in the community unsupervised. There is a monthly and yearly fee for this device.
The Loc8tor is another option and notifies a care giver (or parent of a child for that matter) if the person wearing the device has wandered up to a certain distance away. The Loc8tor is also useful for helping people to find those items that tend to get misplaced – such as keys, wallets and cell phones.
Smartphones have GPS detection capabilities such as the “Find my Friends” application for the iPhone. With this, both users can locate the other person, but it does require the person to be carrying the phone, and the phone to be charged and on. This can be a problem for people with cognitive impairment as they may not always remember to take the phone with them when out, may not understand how to turn this on and / or to check and see if it is charged.
There are home monitoring systems that can notify family when people are coming or going, or even bed alarms if people leave the bed at night. Motion sensors in the home can also help to notify family if someone is wandering or moving between locations indoors. While these don’t work to locate or ensure someone’s safety outside the home, they are a way to give family members piece of mind to go about business inside the home without always needing to provide the person with cognitive impairment constant supervision.
Remember that Occupational Therapy is about helping people to solve the problems that arise when physical, emotional or cognitive abilities change rendering daily activities to become a struggle. In all cases, because disability is experienced differently by everyone, the solution for one person may not be the solution for another – even when dealing with the same diagnosis. So, consult an OT if you have a functional problem to solve!
Online security experts recommend creating strong passwords with a mix of special characters, numbers and letters which are different for each application you use. However, remembering one simple password is often hard enough! Especially for applications you don’t use often, it is recommended you keep a log of each password so you can easily retrieve it when needed. This is particularly helpful for seniors, or anyone dealing with cognitive issues, who may have difficulty remembering passwords, or have trusted family members and/or caregivers who may need access to these.
Use our printable Password Keeper to record these important online passwords and user names, and keep it in a safe place for future use.
At any age physical activity is an important part of your overall health. As you age it’s important to keep active for both physical and mental health, but in most cases activities should become increasingly moderate. The following from CTV News showcases some of the best forms of exercise to boost your brain power and reduce cognitive decline.
Do you have trouble remembering where you left your keys? Is it hard for you to remember the name of the person you were just introduced to? Many who experience these momentary memory lapses often feel it’s cause for concern, but that’s not always the case. The following from WebMD discusses a study which looked at memory in young and older adults and explains why these forgetful moments sometimes occur.
If you are concerned about your cognition and memory as you age there are great ways to keep your mind sharp! Read a book, do a Sudoku or crossword puzzle, learn a language, stay social, or try one of our weekly mind benders. Frequently using your brain will help to keep you on the ball through the years!