“The brain can be continuously and consistently enriched throughout your life no matter your age or access to resources.”
― Sanjay Gupta, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age
Where did I leave my keys? Why did I come into this room? What was it that I wanted at the grocery store? I have a slip of memory and I soon diagnose myself with one or another form of memory loss, abandoning hope in favor of fear. This is only heightened by a family history of dementia.
After I described our family pattern, my doctor recommended the book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age by Sanjay Gupta, MD. I learned a lot. He dispels many myths about aging brains and whether we continue to learn new things as we grow older. I love learning, formally and informally. I don’t want to lose that as I collect another year’s experience.
Here are three myths he debunks: Older people are doomed to forget things. While some cognitive skills decline with age, others, like building vocabulary and judging character improve over time.
Older people can’t learn new things. We can learn new things at any age, even people diagnosed with cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease can learn. Our brains build new neurons all our lives.
Dementia is an inevitable consequence to old age. Gupta says dementia is a disease and not normal aging. We can slow down age related changes and reduce our risk for dementia.
How might we slow those predictable brain changes and reduce our risk for disease? Gupta gives us five pillars of a healthy brain: Move, discover, relax, nourish, connect.
Let’s begin with Move. The most important thing to do to enhance brain function is to develop a regular practice of exercise. Movement is not only good for the body, it is good for the brain, too. He says physical exertion has thus far been the only thing scientifically documented to improve brain health and function. Movement strengthens brain power by helping increase, repair, and maintain brain cells. I know that when I am bored or mentally fatigued, going for a walk wakes up my brain and my body.
Besides convincing data on the benefits of exercise for the brain, physical inactivity has been cited as the most significant risk factor in cognitive decline and development of dementia.
Exercise can act as a “first aid kit” for damaged brain cells, speeding up recovery after injury, stroke, or significant emotional stress. After my surgery for a slow growing, benign brain tumor four years ago, the doctor’s only prescription was to exercise regularly and have an annual brain scan.
Aerobic exercise is best, the kind that raises your heartbeat. We have a wide range of choices: Vigorous walking, swimming, dancing, biking, running. We can all find a form of exercise that works for us. My favorite is brisk walking. I can walk anywhere—it’s free and I need no special equipment other than good shoes. An added value is getting me outside with all its additional benefits.
The second pillar is Discover. Engage in life, never stop learning, solve problems. Keep thinking. Use it or lose it!
Gupta warns us not to retire too early. Work presents new learning opportunities, keeps us physically and mentally active, and provides people-to-people connections, the 5th pillar of a healthy brain. When we do retire it’s important to find activities that stimulate and engage us.
By exploring new ideas and solving fresh problems we build what Gupta calls cognitive reserve. We find alternative ways to think about things, take a fresh look at a situation, discover a way around what appears to be a barrier. It’s like having a road closure in our neighborhood and knowing two or three substitute routes. When I cannot remember how to do a task or a word escapes me, I call upon my cognitive reserve to discover another way to proceed or express myself to get through the impasse.
When we do learn something new, it is important that it has complexity. Creating new brain cells and neuron connections requires complexity or we just go down the same old neural networks. Like cutting across the neighbor’s yard on a well-worn path, it is easy but doesn’t allow for grass to grow or new pathways to form.
A strong sense of purpose is also important. Purpose keeps us engaged. When I retired, I wrote a mission statement for my next chapter of life. I wanted to be intentional about where I was headed.
Relax is the third pillar. Seven to eight hours of sleep is essential for a healthy brain. Chronic sleeplessness puts us at higher risk for depression and mood disorders as well as dementia. During sleep the brain sorts through the activities of the day. It consolidates, files, and discards. This process gets rid of things we don’t need as well as organizes things for recall later. It is decluttering for the brain.
Sleep isn’t the only way to relax. Gupta recommends meditation as well. Like so many of these healthy brain recommendations, this is also good for our spiritual and physical wellbeing. We can practice periodic deep breathing, wander in nature, or laugh. After a good, hardy laugh, I feel a lightness in my mind and body.
Don’t multitask. That is hard to let go. We think we can get so much more done by doing several things at the same time. What really happens is we keep interrupting our focus from one activity to another, none getting our full attention.
Speaking of focus, when you want to remember something, focus on it. Attend to it. It makes it much more likely that you will remember.
The fourth pillar is Nourish. Once again, what is good for the body is good for the brain. Gupta encourages a plant-based diet rich in a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish over red meat. This supports other pillars. For instance, we move our bodies when we grow fresh vegetables. A visit to the local farmer’s market allows us to connect with growers. Sharing our harvest with friends over a healthy meal and good conversation is fun and brain engaging.
The final pillar is Connect. We can grow relationships all our life. Our year (or more) of isolation with COVID-19 reminded us how important relationships are. Engaging socially in larger groups around challenging activities is an investment in our future brain health.
No matter our age, we can choose habits that support a healthy brain and provide a full, engaging, and dynamic life. It is not too early nor too late to build a better brain.
Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director and Retreat Leader in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated on July 16, 2022