Keeping mentally alert with MS

Brain scan of a person with MS

Brain scan showing some of the plaques typical of MS

Yet another study supports the idea that keeping mentally active is not just good for your general health, but, if you already have suffered brain damage (as in multiple sclerosis, for example), it can reduce its harmful effects on learning and memory.

The study, published in the June 15, 2010, print issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, involved over 40 people in their 40s, who had been living with multiple sclerosis for an average of 11 years.

The study found that those with a mentally active lifestyle scored well on tests of learning and memory, even if they had higher amounts of brain damage. In the tests, participants had to learn sets of new words, and were questioned on them after half an hour. Those with a mentally active lifestyle fared better than those with less challenging or enriching lifestyles.

Memory loss

Memory loss and cognitive problems are fairly common symptoms of multiple sclerosis, but this study does suggest that keeping the mind alert and participating in challenging activities can help keep the brain functioning at its best possible level.

The study’s author, James Sumowski, PhD, says

“The findings suggest that enriching activities may build a person’s ‘cognitive reserve,’ which can be thought of as a buffer against disease-related memory impairment”.

He goes on to say that these differences in cognitive reserve could explain why some people with MS display little or no memory or learning impairment, or at least not until much later.

Peter A. Arnett, PhD, of Penn State University in University Park, Pa., who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, thinks these are significant findings, particularly since people typically live with MS for many years.

“More research is needed before any firm recommendations can be made,” he says, “but it seems reasonable to encourage people with MS to get involved in activities that might improve their cognitive reserve, such as mentally stimulating activities like crossword puzzles and word games, regular exercise, and social relationships.”

Studies into Alzheimer’s disease

The study’s author, James Sumowski, points out that the findings are similar to research on cognitive reserve in aging and Alzheimer’s disease. These studies have also shown that keeping the mind active and alert with challenging pursuits such as reading and playing games, not to mention keeping physically fit, does indeed protect against the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Sumowski says more research is needed to investigate how useful certain leisure activities are to people living with multiple sclerosis symptoms.

Symptoms of multiple sclerosis

More research is always needed, of course, since we need to know as much as possible about ways to counter MS symptoms. But I think it’s fair to say that, as one might expect, keeping an active and enquiring outlook can only be a good thing.

Nobody with MS should give up and settle for a less mentally active lifestyle, just because they are already feeling the effects of MS on their mental abilities.


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