New book outlines the five lifestyle pillars to “build a better brain at any age”

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.

Move more

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.

Eat well

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.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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