By the title of this article, you may assume that this is another one of those pieces that tells you to fight cognitive dysfunction by working crosswords or doing Sudoku, or many other things that keeps your brain engaged and that you enjoy. To some extent, it is about fighting cognitive dysfunction, but to me, "intellectual health" goes beyond finding workarounds for short-term memory issues or word-finding difficulties. It is about cultivating and maintaining a broad and deep interest in what is going on in the world. I have adapted the following section from my book, The Multiple Sclerosis Manifesto: Action to Take, Principles to Live By.
Intellectual health, in my opinion, is characterized by the ability to fluidly think thoughts that incorporate creativity, common sense, and knowledge gained from books and through living. It is the ease in which these aspects of cognition come together in a coherent and appropriate way.
To understand what it is like to experience a lack of intellectual health, think back to when you may have watched five straight hours of Green Acres or Happy Days reruns. By the end of the television marathon, you feel slower, kind of dazed, drained of energy and lacking the motivation to do much of anything besides eat Cheetos. On the other hand, when you have an intellectually “snappy” kind of day, you get stimulating little mini-rushes of happiness from little endorphin releases in your brain - this might come after giving a good presentation at work, listening to a reading at a bookstore, holding your own in a fast-paced and interesting conversation or finishing a challenging crossword puzzle.
When it comes to maintaining intellectual health, the mantra “use it or lose it” is truly appropriate (although, admittedly, a little annoying). Your brain needs stimulation to perform well in executive functioning. For those of us living with multiple sclerosis, this is crucial, as many of us feel like we are “swimming upstream” intellectually in our fight against cognitive dysfunction. Cognitive dysfunction as a symptom of MS manifests in several ways, including: problems organizing thoughts, short-term memory deficits, distractibility and attention difficulties, word-finding problems and slower speed of information processing. Here is the good news, folks: it is all still there, it just takes a little extra time and effort to get to it (“it” being our intellect, our smarts, our selves).
To stay intellectually healthy, make a list of things that will get your neurons firing (and that you will enjoy). Some items on your intellectual health list might include:
I know that these things take effort – sometimes the fatigue or other MS symptoms dampens our enthusiasm for things we love to do and makes it really difficult to work up excitement for new activities. What I would recommend is setting a goal for yourself – maybe trying one new thing a week or spending 30 minutes a day doing something intellectually stimulating that you like.
For people who would like to more formally work some intellectual (and other types) health into their lives, take a look at A Program to Redefine Health for People with Multiple Sclerosis: A One-Week Exercise to Help You Understand and Improve Your Well-Being.