It is normal that brain power diminishes as we get older. A number of studies have reported an accelerated reduction in intellectual ability (dementia) or brain power after surgery, chemotherapy or whilst taking hormone therapies. The official term for loss of brain power is ‘cognitive impairment’ and it can manifest itself as a loss of memory and the inability to concentrate. There are numerous underlying causes for this loss of brain power and patients often complain of being forgetful. In most cases this situation is temporary, returning to normal after completion of cancer therapies. For example a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that after a year of taking tamoxifen women scored lower on tests of verbal memory functioning and other cognitive skills than before they started. They also showed that they generally scored better if taking another breast cancer drug, exemestane (Aromasin) rather than tamoxifen. Fatigue or drugs such as painkillers, sedatives or antidepressants, can also exacerbate the loss of brain power. One of the least stated but most important factors is the major disruption that cancer and its treatment has on your daily routine. It is very likely that you will not have the same intellectual stimulation previously received from the work place or social interaction with friends and colleagues. Fortunately, this lack of stimulation can be anticipated and can be corrected, although it may require a lot of hard work and intervention.
What can you do to help?
The golden rules apply to the mind as well as to the body – eat well, stop smoking and exercise. Exercise increases oxygen to the brain and also gets you out of the house, changes your environment and provides visual and intellectual stimulation. Alcohol is not a good idea. We are all aware of the muzzy headedness that occurs with even the mildest of hangovers.
The brain, like a muscle, gets stronger with use. Social interaction helps to stimulate the mind, especially when engaging in interesting conversation. Learning something new, or writing in a diary, will help you to think more creatively, help your memory and enhance your ability to make logical connections. Singing is a nice way to exercise your intellect, particularly those processes originating in the right side of your brain. I’m sure you have noticed that it’s easier to rhyme when singing than when just speaking or writing. This is because the right side of the brain is better at pattern recognition, and also accounts for the phenomenon that stutterers can stop stuttering as soon as they start singing.
Various brain exercise tools are now available commercially – ranging from crosswords, Su Doku and riddle books to electronic brain-teaser gadgets. Brain training doesn’t have to stop if you don’t have access to specific books or electronic gadgets. Imagination exercises have been shown to improve brain power and can be performed anywhere. Imagine different rooms of the house and how they would look if decorated differently or, whilst looking out of the window, try to imagine how it would look during different seasons or when covered with snow. Ideally, try running on a tread mill or walking in the local park and try to solve a mental problem – you will be exercising your mind and body at the same time.
Diet: Find out if you have any food intolerances particularly to gluten which can effect the brain as well as the gut. Eat more fish, pulses, whole rice and beans and less meat (see examples). Healthy bacteria are reported to help prevent dementia – consider a good quality probiotic supplement.
Finally, you may be frustrated by a lack of concentration. However, this will improve with time, but in some cases recovery is hindered by anxiety or a pre-occupation with unconstructive thoughts. The relaxation tips highlighted in the anxiety section of this book may help, but otherwise try to dispel the negative thoughts which are sapping your ability to concentrate. When you are conscious of these thoughts they can often be resolved by discussing them with friends, relatives or your medical team. If not, meditation or psychological counselling may be useful.
Summary – advice to improve your brain power:
- Take regular exercise, stop smoking and reduce alcohol intake
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of polyphenols and fibre
- Take a fish oil regularly unless there is a contraindication
- Review your medication with your doctors – some may be sedating
- Use your brain – engage in conversation, socialise, visit friends
- Stimulate your brain – learn something new, read, listen to audio books
- Exercise your brain – puzzles, singing, brain teasers, imagination
- Use brain exercise gadgets – electronic challenges, chess
- Identify negative thoughts which may be sapping your concentration
- Try to establish a regular sleep pattern
- If you have memory loss on medication – discuss with your doctor