November 2021 — In Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book, “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age“, the neurosurgeon states early on that “you can make your brain better, faster, fitter, and yes, sharper”. That is good news – we are not stuck with an aging brain that diminishes every day thanks to old age, too much drinking, or other bad habits. His book is about propagating brain cells and making our existing ones more efficient. Not to make us smarter, but to help us “navigate life” better.
People tend to think that memory loss is something that comes automatically with old age, which is not the case. Cognitive decline is not inevitable. Just about everyone worries about memory lapses, like forgetting the name of the person you have known for years, but that is not as worrisome as some might think. “Keep Sharp:” is dedicated to the idea that you can have your own “sharp brain” program to improve your thinking and memory, no matter what your age.
The book has several sections, and the most important is probably his 5 pillars of brain health. We will venture to say that you will not be able to guess which pillar is number one.
A self assessment
The book’s introduction discusses dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease makes up about one half of cases. Then Dr. Gupta provides a 24 question self assessment. Most of those questions are fairly obvious – such as: are you obese, lack social engagement, or have too much stress in your life. Not that any one factor puts you at risk for dementia, but four or five can be a warning that your brain could be at risk of decline. But age alone does not guarantee an aging brain. When he examined the brain of a 93 year old man who was as sharp mentally as a person far younger, he made an interesting discovery. When he looked inside that brain it appeared old with wrinkles and other signs of age. It was, however, still functioning at a robust level, because even at his age the brain was alive, growing, and learning.
Part 1 explains the brain, how it works, and a dizzying array of interesting facts. One of those: “Your brain generates enough electricity to power a low-wattage LED light”. The brain’s functions, including memory, are incredibly complex and intertwined.The brain works biochemically, which means that memory tricks are not going to work if the basic needs of the brain are not attended to. His point: the physical needs of the brain have to be met to make functions like memory work better. There is a discussion of memory and people’s sense that they have good or bad ones. According to Gupta, how you pay attention to something has a huge effect on how well you will remember it. When it comes to what causes dementia, there are a variety of potential factors including illness, vascular problems, and chemicals.
The 5 pillars of brain health – secrets of super agers!
Each of the pillars is explained in detail in the book, along with why and how they affect your ability to have a better brain.
Move. In case you guessed it, Dr. Gupta’s number one thing to do to improve brain health is to make sure to do something physical every day. More than doing crossword puzzles, he believes that the association between physical fitness and brain fitness is clear and powerful. Exercise helps repair and maintain brain cells by getting blood flowing. An estimated 80% of Americans don’t get enough exercise, but it is never too late to get started.
Discover. Doing something new can have a powerful effect on your brain health. It might be a new hobby, joining a club, or learning a new physical or mental skill. There are studies that show that retirement can be hazardous to your mental health, and a key reason for that is a lack of engagement and purpose. If you are retired, you need to substitute something for that lost purpose. If you can postpone retirement, do it. Gupta doesn’t believe that brain-training programs are any great cure-all; he believes classes and learning new skills can be even more valuable.
Relax. Getting enough sleep and minimizing stress helps your brain restore its abilities. Gupta says that people who believe they can get along with less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep are putting their brains at risk. Sleep is crucial to restore our brains and bodies, in effect cleaning up the trash floating in there. Two techniques he recommends are mindfulness and meditation.
Nourish. What we eat has a huge effect on our brain’s ability to function. Following a reasonable diet like the Mediterranean-style diet’s olive oil, whole grains, fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables are beneficial to brain health. He believes that what is good for your heart is also good for the brain. So avoid the things we know are bad – too much salt, sugar, fat, fried foods, red meat, etc. Adequate hydration is important too.
Connect. This could be the most surprising of the 5 pillars. He points to studies that show that interacting with others has many benefits such as reducing stress and decreasing risk of cognitive decline. Research studies have shown that married people are less likely to develop dementia as they age. Dr. Gupta is always sad to meet patients who have no immediate family or close friends, and worries that this will affect every aspect of their health, including their brains. Loneliness brings pain, and can even kill.
A 12 week program
Dr. Gupta’s next section is a 12 week program to put those pillars to work in your life, and protect your brain. Basically he has a number of practical suggestions that make it easy to implement each of his five principles and make them a daily habit.
Diagnosing and treating an ailing brain
The final section of the book provides advice and help if you or a loved one thinks that dementia or some other type of brain disorder is a possibility. His explanations and examples are reassuring and helpful.
Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age is a very useful and interesting book. It is a quick read, and his self-assessment and 12 week program are very practical tools. You have probably seen Dr. Gupta on CNN, and his pleasant, no-nonsense personality comes through here. You can buy the book at your independent bookstore, an online retailer, or check it out at your local library.
Comments? Are you worried that your mental faculties are declining (we know ours are!). What are you doing about it?
For further reading:
Dementia – Or Normal Age Related Change?