Like many people over 60, I sometimes lose my keys or forget the names of favorite films. When I do, it makes me wonder: Is this the beginning of cognitive decline? Or, worse, am I fated to follow in the footsteps of my mother, who died of Lewy-body dementia in her 70s?
According to neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta, CNN medical correspondent and author of the new book Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain at Any Age, the answer is no. Forgetfulness is normal at all ages, and your genes don’t doom you to dementia. What’s important is taking care of your brain in the best way possible, he argues.
“You can affect your brain’s thinking and memory far more than you realize or appreciate, and the vast majority of people haven’t even begun to try,” he writes.
Gupta distills results from hundreds of research studies to help readers understand what’s known (and not known) about keeping your brain healthy. Along the way, he busts common myths—for example, that doing puzzles is a good way to ward off dementia—and replaces them with science-based advice on how to live a longer, healthier life with a more functional brain. He also distinguishes typical memory lapses (like forgetting an acquaintance’s name) from more troublesome ones (like not remembering the way home from a frequent destination)—a distinction I found quite reassuring.
While he’s quick to hail the cognitive strengths of older people (they tend to have better vocabulary skills, for example), he also points out that our cognitive capacities can start to decline much earlier in life than we think, even in early adulthood. That’s why he recommends making lifestyle changes now to improve brainpower at every age—not just when you hit your 60s.
Keep Sharp includes a questionnaire assessing risk for cognitive decline—with some surprising questions, like “Do you sit for most of the day?” or “Do you have a history of depression?” Understanding your risk can inspire you to take corrective action. To that end, here are Gupta’s five keys to a healthier brain.
“When people ask me what’s the single most important thing they can do to enhance their brain’s function and resiliency to disease, I answer with one word: exercise,” writes Gupta. Being inactive is probably the most significant risk factor in dementia, while staying fit can help stave it off. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much movement to make a difference: Even walking for two minutes every day counts.
Exercise provides many benefits overall, including better stamina, strength, stress management, and immune function. But the main reason movement helps the brain is that it reduces inflammation while stimulating growth factors that promote the function and growth of neural cells. That’s why aerobic exercise (more than stationary exercise, like weightlifting) confers cognitive benefits—though weightlifting can build muscle.
Get enough sleep
“Sleeping well is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve your brain functions, as well as your ability to learn and remember new knowledge,” writes Gupta. That’s because sleep seems to clear the brain of debris that might otherwise build up and create problems.
Of course, some people have trouble getting good sleep; so, Gupta’s book reminds them of sleep hygiene principles that can help. He also points to the importance of resting, in general, and suggests replacing daytime naps with stress-reducing walks in nature or meditations.
To reduce stress and rumination (those troublesome thoughts that keep us up at night), he recommends that people add a gratitude practice to their day—which, he writes, “acts like a big reset button.” You can also think about community volunteering, taking regular breaks from email and social media, and avoiding multitasking.
Learn, discover, and find purpose
While puzzles may not be the answer to cognitive decline, we do need to stimulate our brains with learning and discovery, writes Gupta. Learning creates new neural pathways and promotes brain resiliency—something that may help stave off the outward symptoms of dementia (like memory loss) even if you develop the telltale brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s
“Think of it as a big backup system in the brain that results from enriched life experiences such as education and occupation,” he writes.
Building cognitive reserve doesn’t happen overnight, he warns—it results from a lifetime of challenging your brain through education, work, social relationships, and other activities. However, just because you don’t have a college education doesn’t mean you will experience greater cognitive decline, either. Aiming to challenge your mind throughout your life is more protective than a formal degree.
Gupta warns that the majority of commercial “brain games” are not effective at staving off dementia, though they may improve memory, because they don’t train problem solving or reasoning—keys to cognitive reserve. People would be better off taking a traditional class or learning a second language, he says, because these activities offer more complex challenges and social contact, too—also important for brain health.
Finding purpose in life can be good for the brain, especially if it involves contact with people of different generations or personal learning and challenge. Research suggests that people with a sense of purpose have reduced risk of suffering the deleterious effects of dementia—even if their brain contains Alzheimer’s plaques—probably because having purpose inspires them to take better care of themselves.
“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” writes Gupta. Still, there is so much conflicting information out there about diets and dietary supplements, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff (pun intended).
Gupta takes pains to dispel myths around gluten and so-called “superfoods” (like kale and fish oil). There is no evidence to suggest gluten affects people’s brain function, he says, and kale and fish oil, while good for you, are not going to stop cognitive decline.
While it’s hard to recommend a perfect brain diet based on research, Gupta cites Martha Clare Morris’s work. An epidemiologist and founding member of the Global Council on Brain Health, Morris recommends a Mediterranean-like diet—one rich in vegetables, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, and olive oil.
That diet may not be palatable or available for everyone, though. So, Gupta provides more general diet advice, too (using the acronym SHARP):
- Stay away from lots of refined sugar.
- Hydrate regularly.
- Add more omega‑3 fatty acids from dietary sources (not pills).
- Reduce portions (possibly trying intermittent fasting).
- Plan ahead—meaning, have healthy snacks around so you don’t turn to junk food if you become hungry.
Connect with others
Having close relationships with others you can count on is important to a happy, healthy life, and may help you live longer. It’s important for brain health, too, as research suggests its opposite, loneliness, seems to be a factor in developing Alzheimer’s.
Gupta suggests combining socializing with other activities designed to get you moving or learning. That could mean taking a walk or class with a friend, joining a team sport, or volunteering. Socializing with more diverse people or people of different generations can also be a plus. And staying connected virtually, while less than ideal, may be helpful when one lives in a remote place without many social supports. An added bonus: Learning how to use social media for the first time may help boost memory.
While it’s true each of these lifestyle factors are good for preventing cognitive decline, Gupta has advice for people already experiencing cognitive decline, too. Part of his book is devoted to helping readers experiencing decline to assess where they’re at and figure out how to move forward from there.
For the rest of us, his book is a useful and highly readable primer for sharpening your brain at any age—not just to stave off dementia, but to simply enjoy your life more fully.
“The brain can be continuously and consistently enriched throughout our life no matter your age or access to resources,” he writes. If you change your lifestyle, even a little, he promises, “Your brain—no, your whole body—will love it.”
— Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine. Based at UC-Berkeley, Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. Copyright Greater Good.