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The Pandemic and Our Brains

March 18, 2021

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I don’t know about you, but I have had trouble concentrating during this pandemic. I used to be able to sit down and read or write for hours at a time. No longer. Now I’m up and down, checking my phone too often, doing things in short bursts, and, occasionally, forgetting why I walked into the room.

Why is this? A recent article in The Atlantic magazine offers some tantalizing clues. In a nutshell, writer Ellen Cushing and the experts she interviewed posit that the stresses – and there have been many – of pandemic life have changed the regions of the brain that control memory, learning, and executive function.

“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine, told Ms. Cushing. Living through a pandemic – even for those who are doing so in relative comfort – “is exposing people to micro-doses of unpredictable stress all the time,” added Tina Franklin, a neuroscientist at Georgia Tech.

Have we been enduring this trauma for so long that we’re forgetting how to be normal? Is this perhaps why our brains seem a bit foggy at this late stage of the pandemic? Apparently, for many of us, the answer is yes.

It’s not all bad news. Scientists believe that our brains will recover as the pandemic recedes and its inherent tensions are alleviated. In the meantime, we can help our brains heal more quickly. Physical exercise, especially for seniors, may be the silver bullet.

We’ve known for centuries, of course, that exercising is good for our physical health. But recent studies consistently show that physical exercise improves aging brains as well as bodies. “When people ask me what’s the single most important thing they can do to enhance their brain’s function and resiliency to disease, I answer with one word: exercise – as in move more and keep to a regular physical fitness routine,” writes Sanjay Gupta in his new book “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age” (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

Dr. Gupta, a brain surgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, says that exercise is the “only behavioral activity scientifically proven to trigger biological effects that can help the brain.”

He and other experts list four additional “pillars” to keep our brains sharp, including fostering new interests and skills, getting enough relaxation, eating healthily, and connecting socially with others. But the experts keep circling back to the benefits of physical exercise.

A new study published in January in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory showed that sedentary, older adults who took aerobic dance classes twice a week showed improvements in brain areas critical for memory and thinking. Exercisers’ brains would “flexibly rearrange their [neural] connections” in a way that the control group (who were sedentary) would not, according to Dr. Mark Gluck, professor of neuroscience at Rutgers University and director of the study.

That older adults were studied is especially important because previous studies had focused on healthy young people, not older folks.

“Exercise”, explains Dr. Gupta, includes a combination of aerobic cardio work (such as swimming, cycling, jogging, group exercise classes), strength training (such as free weights, resistance bands, gym machines, mat Pilates, lunges, squats) and routines that promote flexibility and balance (such as stretching and yoga). It also includes leading a physically active life during the day, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, avoiding prolonged sitting, going for walks during breaks, and engaging in hobbies such as dancing, hiking, and gardening.

Taking a brisk walk for about one hour a day also works wonders.

People who did this, according to a 2015 study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who shunned exercise entirely. Fully 80 percent of Americans don’t get enough regular exercise, though, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only about 23 percent of men and 18 percent of women meet the recommended requirements (at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise.)

So, let’s get moving.

Collins-Jan-of-self-1

Jan Collins is a Columbia-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).

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