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  • Dan Connors

Healthy brains- how to keep sharp in a stupid world

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age

Sanjay Gupta 2020

What's the secret to good, lifelong health? How can we keep our minds and bodies strong well into our golden years? This question has perplexed many humans as their fragile bodies start to break down, and many have taken to drugs, surgeries, and supplements when many of their problems could have been prevented in the first place.

It's no great surprise that the advice presented in Sanjay Gupta's new book, Keep Sharp, is mostly preventative medicine, and it makes a lot of sense. In this book Gupta stresses brain health above everything else, which he says is the key to everything. Cognitive decline is not inevitable as we age, and in some cases it may be reversible.

Sanjay Gupta is an American physician, CNN contributor, prolific author and host of several documentaries as well as his own podcast, "Chasing Life." Gupta stresses preventative actions over miracle cures or dubious treatments, unlike other tv colleagues like Dr. Oz, and he provides plenty of references to back up his claims. (He has, however been criticized for past statements according to his Wikipedia page, and is far from perfect.)

Our brains are incredible organs, made up mostly of water, weighing a mere 3 pounds, containing billions of nerve cells, and able to encode, store, retrieve, and interpret information at speeds that rival the strongest supercomputer. Rather than set from birth, our brains are constantly changing and re-wiring themselves all through life as we both learn and forget. New brain cells are generated all of the time, even in the elderly, and much of the health of our brain as we age is up to us.

Dr. Gupta presents what he calls the 12 destructive myths and proceeds to debunk each of them.

1- The brain is a mystery. (Actually we know a lot about how they work.)

2- Older people are doomed to forget. (Not set in stone.)

3- Dementia is inevitable. (More common as we age, but not inevitable.)

4- You can't teach an old dog new tricks. (New cells and connections come with any learning)

5- You must master one language before learning another.

6- Memory training helps you never to forget.

7- Male and female brains differ significantly.

8- We only use 10% of our brain capacity.

9- Crossword puzzles can keep your brain young.

10- You are either left or right brained.

11- There are only five senses. (Actually 11 mentioned here including time, temperature, balance and pain.)

12- The brain is hardwired and fixed at adulthood.

After debunking the destructive brain myths, the author proceeds to his five pillars of brain health, which he presents in an informative and helpful way.

- Pillar #1- Move and get exercise regularly. People who stay sedentary are more likely to lose brain function. Those who move, walk, swim, dance, or exercise can keep their brains younger. He recommends 450 minutes a week, or 64 minutes a day, for best results based on the research he has seen.

- Pillar #2- Keep your mind busy learning, discovering, and seeking out purpose. Doing a crossword puzzle regularly helps, but not much. People who retire early and don't use their minds much (too much screen time and passive activities) eventually lose brain functions. The older you are, the more you need daily mental challenges to keep what you have.

- Pillar #3- Get plenty of sleep and relaxation. Sleep is essential for brain health, and those who are routinely sleep deprived are in danger of cognitive decline. Sleep, especially deep REM sleep, performs vital processes that clean up parts of the brain and consolidates memories. Relaxation also helps the brain to recover, and the author recommends medication and deep breathing. Too much daily stress and overstimulation can damage the brain if not followed by relaxation and stress relief.

- Pillar #4- Eat a healthy diet. Diets high in sugar, caffeine, processed foods, alcohol, and saturated fats hurt not only the heart and other organs, but they hurt the brain as well. Dr. Gupta recommends something called the MIND diet that is similar to the Mediterranean diet- limited red meat, processed and fried foods, pastries and sugar, but plenty of veggies, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, chicken and olive oil. He presents a helpful mnemonic called SHARP to keep you on track.

S= Slash sugar and stick to healthiest foods

H= Hydrate smartly (water and tea)

A= Add omega 3's, preferably from real food and not supplements

R= Reduce portions, including possibly intermittent fasting

P= Plan ahead and don't get stuck with foods you know aren't good for you.

Pillar #5- Connect for protection. Humans are built for social connections, and when they feel lost and alone, they lose purpose and mental functioning suffers. That doesn't mean having 500 Facebook friends, it means having a circle of friends that you can reach out to and interact with in a meaningful way regularly. Dr. Gupta points to a landmark survey of men from their teens to old age that shows that good quality relationships were the biggest factor in predicting who would live longer and happier lives. The Ted Talk video on this study is very good and can be seen here.

The first third of this book was the most helpful to me, especially the five pillars. The second third goes into a 12-week plan for improving the health of your brain, but I tend to avoid plans like this, although there are some helpful concrete steps that are tied to the five pillars. The final third is tailored to patients and families that are already experiencing mental decline, and it has advice specifically for them. Cognitive problems can be very mild or very severe, and in the case of diseases like Alzheimer's they rarely get any better. There is hope for most of these patients with the right treatments.

The bottom line of this book is that our brains are critical to our health. This is not a book about mental and emotional health, which would be covered in a psychology book. Instead it is about the three pound organ between our ears that controls so much of our destiny. It provides much good information and advice about keeping your brain (and body) healthy and active. (Use it or lose it.) Dr. Gupta dispels some misconceptions and points us in the right behavioral direction, and that's something I wish all doctors would stress more in dealing with their patients.

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