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Getting your mojo back after pandemic isolation

How to break through brain haze and jump-start your brain

CHICAGO --- Many younger adults are suffering some version of brain haze as a result of the stress and social isolation of the pandemic. For older adults, the effects may be even more profound. Social isolation increases dementia risk by 50% in older adults. 

How do younger adults clear the brain fog? And what can older adults do to grow new brain cell connections? 

Northwestern Medicine experts discuss activities and exercises that can help sharpen the brain. The doctors are Dr. Borna Bonakarpour, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Dr. June McKoy, professor of medicine in gerontology at Feinberg. 

Here is a Q & A with the doctors. The first part discusses younger adults; the second part focuses on older adults.

Younger and middle age-adults

What does our “haze” look like in the brain?

Dr. Borna Bonakarpour: “It’s an abnormal brain physiology. The connections between neurons are looser, less efficient and less focused. If the brain is sharp and trying to solve a problem, we see one spot light up in a functional MRI. If people are confused, you see the whole brain light up as it tries hard to figure things out, but it’s not efficient. There is a lot of distraction in the brain networks.

What caused brain haze in younger and middle-aged adults?

Bonakarpour: “Stress and anxiety, lack of sleep, lack of daily structure as we work from home, home distractions, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, isolation and Zoom fatigue all contribute to brain haze.

“All of these affect the executive and attention part of the brain, the frontal network. Brain haze is a lower efficiency of the frontal and executive network. It means the brain isn’t processing things as efficiently as before. That’s why we don’t’ feel as sharp. And the effects are cumulative.” 

What can we do to clear the fog?

Bonakarpour: “Exercise is the number one way to clear the brain haze. Now that the weather is getting better, socialize outside. Take walks with people. Do something that stimulates the brain, puzzles, reading, arts, books, music, not watching TV.

“In the morning, play upbeat rhythmic music. At the end of day, you need something to wind down like classical music.”

Bonakarpour creates playlists of upbeat music for morning like Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro: Overture,”Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” and Genesis’ “Duke’s Travels.” For the evening he likes slow tempo, more meditative music like Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, 2nd movement” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral), 2nd movement.” 

How long will it take to feel like our old sharp selves again? 

Bonakarpour: “We don’t have any experience with this, but it will probably take from three to 12 months to feel like your old sharp self again. It requires us going back to normal life. The brain is pretty flexible. It responds to the environment.

“It’s like recovering from war. I grew up in war when I was in Iran. When the war ended in 1988, it took a couple years for people to get back to normal. 

“Some people are more vulnerable. We see people who come in with symptoms such as tingling in their hands or feet, or who feel weak as a result of pandemic stress. The emotional weight on them was really severe.” 

Older adults 

How did social isolation affect older adults’ brains and cognition?  

Dr. June McKoy: “Social isolation increases dementia risk by 50%. It has been said that loneliness is the social equivalent to feeling physical pain, and it triggers the same pathways in the brain that process emotional response to pain.  As a natural part of aging, processing speed decreases, attention decreases and thinking declines. However, these deficiencies are amplified even more when an older adult is isolated and can persist for several years after the isolation has been lifted. Studies have found excess amounts of two brain proteins (beta amyloid and Tau) in lonely older adults; these are the same proteins in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. 

“Some studies have suggested that lonely people have reduced brain volumes in the pre-frontal cortex, which is important in decision-making and social behavior. People experiencing isolation also have smaller hippocampi. The health of the hippocampus is critically important as it is the gateway to memory.  It helps to form, organize, and store new memories and it connects emotions to memories."

Can older adults rebuild lost brain cells as restrictions lift and socializing returns?  

McKoy: “Older adults can make up to 700 new neurons in the hippocampus per day according to a 2013 study published in Cell. Sustained aerobic exercise (brisk walking, swimming, running, cycling) over eight weeks can increase neuron production, because this type of exercise releases a protein in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which regulates neurogenesis (the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain). Even though Yoga and meditation are not aerobic exercise they can relieve stress and increase neurogenesis. Doing tasks that require concentration has a positive effect on the hippocampus. 

“More social activity is associated with less cognitive decline.  A way to jumpstart the ‘cognition engine’ is to find innovative ways to stay connected. While many older adults are not tech savvy, there are many easy-to-use Apps and online programs that can seamlessly and safely connect them with their families, friends, and safe social communities.   

What if older adults are depressed? 

McKoy: “Isolation can lead to stress and depression, which slows neuron production. Prolonged depression can lead to 10% shrinkage of the hippocampus thus impacting memory. Older adults with residual depression might need to be treated with medications given that depression can slow the production of new brain cells.”