Archive for Cognitive Stimulation

Using Mindfulness to Combat Pain

The Cognitive Therapeutics Team frequently advocates for non-pharmacological approaches to well-being in order to protect the body and brain against the possible side effects of medication. In line with this thinking, we see promise in research that suggests mindfulness can combat symptoms of pain.

Practicing mindfulness means taking measures to live fully in the present moment. By focusing on your current state, both physically and emotionally, and experiencing how you feel without passing judgment, it may become easier to let go of anxieties associated with the past or the future. Practicing mindfulness is akin to meditation – elements of mindfulness are used in many meditative relaxation techniques, including tai chi, yoga, prayer and more.

Dr. Sara Lazar, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says, “Mindfulness is basically paying attention to the present moment without judging.”

How to Perform Mindfulness

In order to practice mindfulness, sit in a quiet and comfortable space. You should be comfortable – sit up straight, but not stiff, with your hands resting on your thighs. Focus your attention on how your body feels. How do your feet feel on the floor? How do your hands feel on your legs? Do you feel any physical discomfort?

Next, focus on your breathing, paying particular attention to each exhale. If you become distracted with outside concerns, imagine them as clouds floating by and watch them pass as you return to your breathing. Experts recommend practicing mindfulness for five to 10 minutes once a day, gradually building up to 20 minute sessions.

Why Mindfulness Can Help Pain

Often, feelings of pain are intensified by our negative reactions; our emotional aversion to pain affects how we experience it. Clinical studies have proven that practicing mindfulness techniques can reduce some of the pain associated with chronic conditions, including arthritis and fibromyalgia. Instead of anticipating pain in fear, mindfulness can help you take a step back and experience pain objectively. Where does the pain start? What does the sensation feel like? Does it move or change over time?

Researchers have studied the brains of individuals who practice mindfulness versus those who do not through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Interestingly, they found that those who practice mindfulness have greater activity in pain centers of the brain despite reporting that they feel significantly less pain than others. However, they have less activity in areas involved in emotion and memory – by experiencing pain as a sensation instead of something that is unpleasant, they are able to mentally block some of the pain.

Depending on the severity and cause, mindfulness may not work against every type of pain. However, mindfulness has a multitude of other benefits, including an increase in happiness and a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression. Start today by practicing for five minutes three days a week, and build up from there!


Is Reading Good for the Brain?

Adults stress the importance of reading to young children but may sometimes have difficulty following their own advice, perhaps due to a lack of time to read themselves. However, reading is extremely beneficial to cognitive health because it engages memory and attention centers in the brain while reducing stress. According to a recent Yale study, reading can also improve longevity.

The study analyzed data from 3,635 participants of the Health and Retirement Study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. All participants were over the age of 50 and reported their reading habits for twelve years. The participants were broken into three groups based on these self-reports: those who did not read books, those who read for up to 3.5 hours per week, and those who read for more than 3.5 hours per week.

After accounting for variants such as age, sex, education level and more, the research group determined that the group who read for up to 3.5 hours every week had a 17% decreased risk of mortality than those who did not read at all. Similarly, the group that read over 3.5 hours every week had a 23% decreased risk of mortality compared to the group that didn’t read at all.

The study also found that individuals who read magazines and newspapers had increased longevity over non-readers, but these effects were less significant than those that read books. The research team attributed this to the fact that books typically engage the brain for longer periods of time.

In order to engage your brain more while reading, alternate between fiction and nonfiction, try different genres or pick up books about new topics you want to explore. Try reading for 15 minutes before bed – reading can be a great way to help one de-stress before bed, resulting in a better night’s sleep.

If you are looking for new books to read, try a book from Home Care Assistance’s Healthy Longevity Book Series; the Cognitive Therapeutics Team recommends The Brain Boost: A Practical Guide to Brain Health. Contact your local Client Care Manager at 1-866-454-8346 to pick up a free copy of The Brain Boost today!


10 Facts You Need to Know to Promote and Harness Neuroplasticity

Due to the limitations of pharmacological approaches to dementia and other forms of cognitive decline, scientists are relying more on non-pharmacological treatment plans, such as cognitive therapy, as a way to help delay the onset and slow the progression of symptoms of cognitive decline. Non-pharmacological interventions are based on the concept of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize connections in the brain, create new connections and even create new neurons under some circumstances. Generally, neuroplasticity occurs in two instances: as a result of learning and experience or a result of damage to the brain.

The Cognitive Therapeutics Method™ is based heavily on the concept of neuroplasticity and takes advantage of the brain’s ability to create new connections by engaging 5 cognitive domains with activities. Below, we have compiled 10 important facts that you need to know in order to promote neuroplasticity in your day-to-day life for better brain health!

  1. Neuroplasticity is real, and it is more important than our genes. Neuroplasticity is a lifelong process and has far greater effects on our brain’s outcome than genes do.
  2. All physical exercise promotes brain function, but cardio is king. Exercising increases blood flow, brain volume and growth hormone levels, especially if it really gets the heart pumping. We recommend 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day, four days a week.
  3. Mental stimulation helps build cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s protective mechanism that helps delay symptoms of cognitive decline, so engaging the brain helps protect it over the long-term.
  4. Overall brain health depends upon working a variety of brain functions. It is not enough to engage only our memory or attention; we need an assortment of activities to keep our brains healthy, which is why the Method targets five domains.
  5. Routines don’t challenge the brain, so try something new or increase the level of difficulty. Activities should be challenging enough where they can be fun, but still engaging. Try alternating between Sudoku and crossword puzzles to work on and improve different skills.
  6. A bigger, more complex social network has been correlated with a bigger amygdala. This area of the brain is responsible for emotion and behavior. Those with bigger social circles are also less likely to suffer from depression or loneliness.
  7. A Mediterranean diet can improve brain health and has the potential to reduce shrinkage. The assortment of fruits, vegetables, nuts and olive oil have proven to protect the brain against cognitive decline.
  8. Chronic stress can block neuroplasticity. Under extreme stress, we have all noticed lapses in memory or attention to detail. It is important to promote calm and focus for optimal brain health.
  9. No one solution works! A multi-pronged approach works best, so include a healthy diet, exercise regimen, social schedule and mentally engaging activities in your plan.
  10. In addition, know your limits. A professional caregiver or Cognitive Therapeutics Interventionist can help you create a brain health plan that fits your unique needs and preferences!

To learn more about neuroplasticity and ways to proactively boost brain health, read The Brain Boost: A Practical Guide to Brain Health, one of the award-winning books in Home Care Assistance’s Healthy Longevity Series.


New Study on Self-Motivation

senior using neurofeedback trainingSelf-motivation is key to healthy aging; we need motivation to maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly and engage our brains by learning something new. A recent study shows that there may be ways we can train our brains to improve our self-motivation.

Scientists know that neurons that are essential to motivation are located in an area of the brain known as the ventral tegmental area (VTA). This area is located deep in the middle of the brain and is involved in the reward and pleasure circuits. In a recent study published in the journal Neuron, scientists from Duke University asked people to activate their VTA by focusing on feelings of motivation.

For the study, 73 participants were asked to go into an fMRI machine which scans the brain and detects which areas are most active. Participants were then asked to generate feelings of motivation using their personal strategies during 20-second intervals. The participants were unable to simply activate this area of the brain on command.

The researchers then used neurofeedback, a training method where they show a meter displaying the activity in a specific brain region – in this case, the VTA – in real time. Now that participants were able to see the meter move as an indicator of brain activation, they quickly learned which self-motivation strategies worked while they laid in the fMRI.

The research team saw great success in participants who used the neurofeedback training. Participants thought about pep talks, high-fiving a room full of people and other motivational scenarios to get the meter to move. Although exhilarating, some say it was exhausting to focus all their energy on one intense emotional experience.

For participants that underwent the neurofeedback training, they were able to activate their VTAs after removing the meter by thinking of the same situations they had before. While the study does not test whether neurofeedback can change long-term behavior after the fMRI sessions, the team hopes that this research may someday be used as a clinical tool to help train people to become more self-motivated. And because of VTA’s role in the reward circuits and dopamine production, the team sees potential for the neurofeedback training to help those with ADHD or those recovering from drug addictions.

In the meantime, find ways to motivate yourself so that you can make choices to stay active and healthy. For more information on the latest research in brain health, visit


Meditation Increases Brain Volume

senior woman meditationMeditation is widely regarded as a successful way to promote calm, reduce stress and reflect on one’s life. In order to learn more about the effects meditation has on the brain, Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, studied individuals that meditated on both a long-term and short-term basis.

Lazar first studied the brains of long-term meditators, or insight meditation practitioners, who meditated regularly over many years and compared them with the brains of a control group. Rather than utilizing mantra or chanting, insight meditation focuses on cultivating attention to internal experiences and mental capacity termed “mindfulness.” On average, the long-term meditators group practiced meditation 40 minutes a day for about a decade. Using magnetic resonance imaging, the research team saw that meditators had more gray matter in the insula and sensory regions as well as the auditory and sensory cortex compared to the control group. Their heightened senses were due to an increase in mindfulness during their practice – they paid more attention to their breathing, sounds around them and the experience of the present moment.

Long-term meditators also had more gray matter in the frontal cortex which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. The cortex often shrinks with age, making it more difficult to solve problems and remember things, but this study showed that the prefrontal cortex of 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as that of 25-year-olds.

Lazar and her team wanted to make sure that the long-term meditators didn’t have more gray matter before they started meditating. In a second study, they assessed a group of people that went through an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Individuals attended a weekly class and were asked to meditate 40 minutes daily. However, the average meditation time was about 30 minutes a day.

Compared to the control group, this short-term meditation group had increases in brain volume in five different regions. Researchers also saw thickening in the following four regions: posterior cingulate (involved in mind wandering and self-relevance), left hippocampus (assists in learning, memory and emotional regulation), temporoparietal junction (involved in perspective-taking and empathy) and Pons (center for production of regulatory neurotransmitters). In the meditation group, the amygdala, which is associated with fear and stress, decreased in size and correlated with a reduction in stress levels.

This study suggests that meditation practice may promote neuroplasticity and slow the rate of neurodegeneration in certain areas of the brain. Currently, there is no proven amount of time required to see benefits from meditation, although aiming for 30 minutes a day is a good goal. Similar to exercise, meditation is not a cure-all and is best used alongside other healthy practices such as eating a balanced diet in order to see the most positive results.



Arts and Crafts Projects Thought to Improve Brain Health

senior knitting

Recent research has shown a link between mental well-being and creative activities. They are finding that crafting projects, such as creating complex knitting patterns, may have the same benefits to the mind as cognitive activities, like crossword puzzles. They are also beginning to notice mental health benefits since the calm associated with painting or sculpting is similar to the relaxation one feels when they meditate. Arts and crafts may help protect the brain against aging-related cognitive decline, while also promoting happiness and stress reduction.

Have you ever been so involved in painting a piece of art, or knitting an elaborate pattern, that you don’t notice your thoughts or what was going on around you? This unadulterated focus is called “flow” by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he describes this state as one of the purest forms of happiness and key to mental health. Csikszentmihalyi states that the human nervous system processes a limited amount of information at a given time. When in “flow”, the body does not have enough processing power to think about physical feelings, such as hunger, or negative emotions. Similar to meditation, flow can alleviate stress by calming anxious thoughts or feelings of agitation.

Crafting leads to the stress-reducing state of “flow” but also has anti-depressant potential since it can stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center, giving feelings of pleasure. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy surveyed over 3,500 knitters and 81% of respondents with depression reported feeling happy after knitting, while 50% were very happy. This sense of joy and accomplishment continues further when the finished craft is given as a gift or put on display and admired by others.

In addition to making people happier, arts and crafts could have cognitive health benefits. Crafting can be an intellectually stimulating activity and is unique in that it involves many areas of the brain. For instance, creating a complex quilting pattern would work areas of the brain involved with attention span, creativity, visual-spatial processing and problem solving. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry published a study in 2011 stating that playing games, reading books, and crafting could potentially reduce the chances of developing mild cognitive impairment by 30-50%.

Although further research is needed, crafting is a great non-pharmaceutical way to alleviate anxiety, depression and stress while promoting brain health. To learn about other lifestyle factors that influence brain health, read Home Care Assistance’s latest book in its senior wellness series, The Brain Boost: A Practical Guide to Brain Health