Having a brain injury can increase your chances of dementia; here are activities to reduce your risk

BY: ALISON

The facts are scary. Research suggests people with traumatic brain injuries have a higher risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. The good news is research also suggests that by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and participating in key activities, the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia may be reduced by 50 per cent.

older adult sitting on a bench, looking at a dirt road

A healthy lifestyle includes doing what we’re all supposed to be doing anyway: maintaining a healthy diet, getting quality sleep and proper stress management.  

Here are three main types of activities that can prevent, slow and possibly even reverse cognitive deterioration:

Physical activities

Regular, moderately intense exercise is essential. Keep in mind that the definition of moderate exercise is different for everyone. If you exercise too lightly, you won’t reap the benefits from it, but if you push yourself too hard, you risk injuring yourself. Where possible, the exercise regimen should include cardiovascular, muscle strengthening, and balance exercises. Do what you can and do your best. For example, if you can only use your arms, then find endurance and strength training exercises that are tailored to your arms, shoulders, and back.

You can find examples of exercise routines from a chair, here.

Social activities

Face-to-face interaction is the best. You can be one-on-one or with a group of people as long as you are engaged in the exchange. You could join a club, volunteer, take a class, chat with a friend over coffee, go to a museum etc. If you aren’t able to go out, have a phone conversation or video chat with a friend.

You can also join our #BISTUESDAYS or #BISTEVENINGS activities! 

pexels-photo-84663Mentally challenging activities

There are many different types of brain training activities with varying difficulty. The greater the challenge and novelty, the better, but work your way up to more complex activities gradually. Here are just some suggestions:

  • learn something new (e.g. skill, language, musical instrument etc.)
  • change your habits (e.g. use your non-dominant hand, explore new routes, try different organizational systems for your things and electronic files, etc.)
  • play games (e.g. board games, card games, puzzles, crosswords, riddles, brain teasers, memory games, word or number games, math games, etc.)

two men walking by a beach on the board walk on a foggy day

Other important factors to take into consideration:

  1. The activities must be challenging and engaging, which means that they should be, at least, moderate in complexity or intensity. Remember to increase the level of difficulty of your activities as you improve.
  2. There must be variety in the activities, so that your brain is truly being challenged to form new neural connections. Adding variety to your regimen will also help to make your activities more fun, engaging, and challenging.
  3. The best results are achieved when a single task incorporates at least two of the three types of activities. For example, playing board games with other people is considered a social activity as well as a mentally challenging activity. Also, exercising with another person and playing a team sport have both physical and social components, making them better options than exercising by yourself.

I’d like to note that these strategies are also helpful in treating brain injuries, depression, and low self-esteem. So get active, try new things, connect with friends, and have fun with it!

Thank you to Dr. Emily Nalder for presenting this information at BIST’s Aging and the Brain seminar in February, 2015.

‘Mind Yourself with Alison’ is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). Check out Alison’s other BIST Blog articles Women and Brain Injury: What you need to know and How to be a Good Friend to a Survivor.

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17 activities you can do when you’re recovering from a concussion

BY: ALISON

When I was in the acute phase of my concussion, I couldn’t do anything. I thought the boredom would kill me if my symptoms didn’t (new research suggests I was somewhat right).

I felt even more frustrated when my partner’s online search for fun activities for concussed people turned up countless suggestions that weren’t possible for me. All forms of stimuli were excruciatingly painful. I couldn’t do anything that involved electronic devices, lights, eye strain, sound, or physical activity.

Here is a list of activities that I gradually worked my way up to doing.

Please feel free to write a comment below and share what you did while recovering from your brain injury.

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The pain of post-ABI boredom

BY:  ALISON

After my concussion, I lived in ‘stimulation jail’ for several months (and, when my symptoms require it, I still do.) The boredom I felt was at times more insufferable than the plethora of pain and other concussion-related symptoms I experienced. 

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photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller The Safety of Fear via photopin (license)

During the acute recovery phase of a brain injury, patients are often instructed, quite literally, to do nothing. Some endure this ‘jail’ for a few days to weeks. Others remain confined for much longer with no foreseeable end in sight.

I would risk worsening my symptoms just to do something, anything to help pass the time. My family would then get angry at me for overexerting myself. I didn’t know how to explain to them that boredom was causing me real pain and suffering. They assumed that I was exaggerating, until now.

Recently, a psychology experiment found that most people would rather self-inflict physical pain than be bored.

Subjects were placed alone with their thoughts in sparsely furnished rooms for 15 minutes. As to be expected, most of the subjects indicated that they did not enjoy “just thinking” and preferred to have something else to do.

What surprised the investigators (but not me), was that a majority of the subjects preferred to have an unpleasant activity than no activity at all. Prior to the start of one experiment, male and female volunteers received a single electric shock.

42 volunteers said that they would pay money to avoid being shocked again. However, when those same volunteers were left alone for only 15 minutes in a room devoid of distractions other than the option to receive electric shocks, 67 per cent of the males and 25 per cent of the females chose to self-administer at least one shock.

So the next time someone invalidates your experience with boredom or confinement, you can smile and politely tell them about this study.

Mind Yourself with Alison is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). You can read her other articles HERE.

Goal setting after a brain injury

BY: ALISON

Before my concussion, I was always busy.

I worked long hours, travelled three times a year, hosted parties, played sports, volunteered and maintained a blog. I had one-year fitness goals, five-year career goals, 10-year family goals, and 30-year financial goals. After my injury, my symptoms were so debilitating and unpredictable that I couldn’t even make plans for 10 minutes in the future. I was close to giving up entirely, until I changed my perspective and approach to goal-setting.

women standing in running shoes
photo credit: 2012Vegas 676 via photopin (license)

How to Set Goals After a Brain Injury

Step 1: Change Your Perspective and Set Your Goal(s).

First you have to decide what you want your goal to be. It is imperative you don’t set yourself up for failure by having unfair expectations. If you set an unrealistic goal, you will de-motivate yourself and give up. Through accomplishing a series of challenging, yet do-able goals, you will achieve the once seemingly impossible ones.

Set simple goals that are achievable in the short term (i.e. daily and/or weekly). Then gradually work your way up to more difficult goals.

After my injury, just lifting my head off the bed to drink water was exhausting, so my first goal was to perform one task every three days. Tasks included taking a shower, folding clothes, or going to an appointment. Once I could do that, I slowly increased the frequency and difficulty of the tasks.

I then added outings to my goals, which later included running errands. Eventually, I was performing multiple tasks each day, having outings a few times per week, and running multiple errands per outing.

As my energy levels improved, I also set my first fitness goal, to walk for at least 10 minutes each day. Over time, this evolved to taking longer walks and faster-paced walks. Once I had more confidence in my capabilities, I focused on social goals. I started with phone conversations and one-on-one meetings, before working my way up to group dinners at bustling restaurants. Finally, I started hosting parties in my home.

Exercise is well-known to improve brain function, depression, anxiety, and sleeping problems. Furthermore, recent studies indicate that moderate exercise is the best treatment for concussions.

a freshly made bed
photo credit: Mazzali bedroom via photopin (license)

Step 2: Plan Out Your Goals and Take One Tiny Step at a Time.

Now that you’ve set your goal, the next step towards achieving it is to make a plan. Write your plan down on a piece of paper so you can follow it easily and cross things off as you complete them.

The best approach to planning (and executing that plan), is to take things one tiny step at a time. Break down each goal into as many small, manageable components as you can, then tackle one component at a time. The definition of ‘manageable’ is different for everyone and will change as you recover.

For example, these were the tiny, manageable steps that I planned for my goal of going for a walk:

  1. Stand up (you could break this step down further. e.g. lift head off bed, then lift head and shoulders off bed, then sit up, then sit on the side of the bed, then stand up.)
  2. Drink some water
  3. Change my clothes
  4. Gather my cell phone, keys, and health card
  5. Put walking/running shoes on
  6. Leave the house (i.e. simply step outside)
  7. Start walking (even if it’s just a few feet) and rest as needed
  8. Walk home and rest as needed
  9. Stretch
  10. Drink some water

When you start executing your plan, the most important thing to remember is to focus only on the task. Don’t even think about how you’re going to tackle the next step until you’ve completed the current one. That means, not worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to complete all of the steps, and not counting the number of steps you have left.

Taking one tiny step at a time will earn you little wins, keep you motivated, and make your goal seem less daunting. Take breaks when you need them and try again later.

It helps to have someone else’s support when you’re working towards a goal, but only if they understand the importance of taking things one step at a time. I remember one night in the winter, my partner wanted to take me to the mall to help me achieve my daily walking goal. I was fatigued and dizzy and convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do it. But he talked me through one step at a time. He said, we’re just going to get in the car and we’re just going to drive to the mall. If you’re still not feeling well when we get there, you don’t have to get out of the car, we’ll come straight home. So he helped me up off the couch and into the car. He drove me to the mall, turned the engine off, and asked if I was able to get out of the car. I was, and in that moment, we set a goal of walking to the mall entrance and back. When I got to the entrance, I felt okay, so we went inside. That night, I ended up walking for longer than my daily goal.

drinking a glass of water
photo credit: Denise via photopin (license)

So when you’re faced with a particularly daunting moment, keep repeating to yourself, “I’m just going to do this tiny task. That’s not too hard.” One and a half years of tiny steps later, I jogged 5 km in the BIST Run, Walk & Roll. I’m working towards running a 10 km race next year.

Step 3: Be Flexible and Be Kind to Yourself.

Celebrate each tiny success and never criticize or punish yourself for set-backs. Goal-setting after a brain injury requires time and practice through trial and error, so be patient with yourself, do what you can, and be flexible with changes to your plans. If something’s not working for you, try again and then try something different. You might need to re-evaluate your goals, revisit them at a later time, or break certain steps into smaller components. Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help.

Step 4: Set New Goals and Keep Challenging Yourself.

As your symptoms improve, you’ll be able to accomplish more each day. When you’re further along in your recovery process, gradually increase the breadth and difficulty of your steps. Soon, you’ll be working on various goals (e.g. fitness, cognitive, financial and social) simultaneously.

Eventually, your goals will become more and more challenging, complex, and long-term. No matter what your physical barriers are, there’s always something to learn, something to improve, and new ways to challenge yourself. As long as you take things one step at a time, you’ll look back one day and surprise yourself with how far you’ve come.


‘Mind Yourself with Alison’ is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). Check out Alison’s other BIST Blog articles Women and Brain Injury: What you need to know and How to be a Good Friend to a Survivor.