NB: This is the third in a four-post series about how to combat “fibro fog” and improve cognitive function. Post #1 examines fibro fog in its various manifestations and examines some possible causes. It also provides an overview of a three-phased approach to combating fibro fog that the remaining posts in the series will examine in more detail. Post #2 looks at improving sleep; this post outlines strategies to keep your brain challenged and healthy; and post #4 will examine various coping mechanisms to deal with the fibro-fog effects that can’t be eliminated by the first two phases.
Phase Two: Keep Your Brain Sharp
Making time to engage in activities that keep your brain’s neurons firing in diverse ways is crucial to combating the effects of fibro-fog and to improving your brain health overall, which is important as we age.
The following activities are especially recommended as they call on different areas of intelligence and provide a comprehensive “brain fitness” program which can help beat back fibro fog and general brain dysfunction caused by aging as well.
I’m personally very excited about this discovery: chess is an amazing all-around brain booster when it comes to fighting fibro-fog! It may seem daunting if you’ve never played before, but my experience might be encouraging to you.
First, a bit of background about my own fibromyalgia history: I was diagnosed in early 2000. Thanks to a supportive doctor and my own willingness to take a fairly scientific yet assertive approach to management, was able to enjoy a fairly high quality of life for several years.
This was due to a complex, comprehensive treatment program I developed over the years that included restorative yoga, a diet rich in lean proteins and complex carbohydrates, several conservative “feel good” measures, and regular, but carefully monitored, doses of tramadol with acetaminophen.
Unfortunately, due to various severe stressors I experienced from 2007 on, my fibro got significantly worse, culminating in the horrifying discovery earlier this year (2009) that I was no longer able to practice my profession (law), primarily because of cognitive problems. That’s a scary feeling for anyone, and I admit I panicked at first.
I wish I could say I’m all better now, but I’m not. However, I have improved my brain function to a noticeable degree and one of the keys to this improvement, I’m convinced, is that I started learning to play chess.
Chess is a complex game of strategy, requiring players to think several moves ahead, and consider various game permutations in order to make the best tactical moves. The rules of chess are fairly simple but the way those rules play out in a real game can be mind-boggling! My theory is that this complex reasoning can be developed as one learns the game, and that this process must somehow “ignite” the faulty neurons that misfire in fibro fog.
I started with a program that came pre-loaded on my latest computer purchase, a Gateway laptop: Chess Titans. By setting the level to “1” (rank beginner), and refreshing my memory about the various rules of piece movement, I was able to engage in a few games and even managed to eke out a few “draws” (but no “wins”!) against the computer, which also played at a beginner level.
I did some research online at free websites (some of these are outlined in the resource list below), and educated myself on various maneuvers and openings. Then I made a cool accidental discovery: by setting Chess Titans to “new game against human being” I could take historic games, such as Game Thirteen of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship match, and play it out on the virtual board before me. By following the action along with written commentary about the moves — why this move was bold but that one was a blunder — I was able to improve my understanding about the game dramatically.
I’m still a rank beginner — after all, I’ve only been playing a few weeks — but I have noticed significant improvement in my mental capacity, especially in the area of deductive reasoning and, oddly, memory and retention. I play daily now, for a half hour or so. If that’s the price for better control over fibro-fog, it’s one I’m happy to pay — it requires little time, and it’s fun, to boot — especially now that I’m starting to win a few games!
Sudoku: The Numbers Game
Sudoku became something of a craze awhile back, and it’s been highly recommended by neurologists and researchers as an excellent way to maintain brain fitness against the natural decline of the aging process. It’s also a great way to exercise a different area of the brain in the fight against fibro fog.
Playing number games like Sudoku doesn’t just improve your math skills. Interestingly, perhaps because it requires you to reason out ahead of time, much like chess, it can also improve overall cognition, in my experience.
You can find cheap Sudoku puzzle books in any drugstore or big box superstore, such as Walmart. You can also find online puzzle sites that offer free games, either for print or for playing online.
Play That Funky Music
I’m not just suggesting you put on your favorite CD or load up your iPod. I’m saying “play an instrument” — and learn one, if you don’t currently know how to play.
There’s a huge resistance among many of a “certain age” against picking up a new instrument later in life. I understand the anxiety, believe me. When I finally satisfied a life-long itch to learn the violin two years ago, I was surprised by the fact that there weren’t many resources out there for adults learning to play. I ended up with the “baby” Suzuki method books, which worked just fine but it would have been nice to have some more “grown-up” references available!
Anyone can learn to play an instrument with time and practice. Playing music is actually doubly beneficial. The music itself — the process of learning a piece and perfecting it — acts like aerobic exercise for cognition, but also the process of learning the instrument itself is powerfully helpful against fibro fog and general cognition decline.
So, even if it’s been awhile — or if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument in your life — give this some thought. Cheap student violins can be purchased online for as little as $50; you may be able to borrow your church’s piano for practice during times when no one’s using the sanctuary; you can even rent instruments from many music shops, if you want to give it a try but aren’t too sure about making an initial investment.
One thing I recommend from personal experience — i.e., my own mistakes: if you’re going to go to the trouble of learning a new instrument, invest in a few lessons from a qualified teacher who is supportive of older learners. Not every teacher is, so question them on that latter point! I dove into the violin without the aid of one-on-one lessons, using DVDs and online videos, and that was OK, but I think I could have gone much farther more quickly with the aid of a live instructor who could correct my form directly.
If you already know how to play, then purchase some music that’s a little more difficult than your current level of proficiency, and set aside time regularly to work on the piece.
Whichever you are — a total beginner, a returning student, or a lifelong musician — conquering an instrument and playing something you weren’t able to play before not only improves your brain fitness but it’s also a huge boost to your self-confidence!
In the next post, we’ll examine ways to cope with fibro fog’s cognitive malfunctions.