Like many people over 60, I sometimes lose my keys or forget the names of favorite films. When I do this, I ask myself: is this the beginning of a cognitive decline? Or, worse, did I fatefully 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 any age, and your genes don’t condemn you to dementia. What is important is taking the best possible care of your brain, he argues.
“They can affect your brain’s thinking and memory far more than you realize or appreciate, and the vast majority of people haven’t even started trying,” he writes.
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Gupta distills results from hundreds of research studies to help readers understand what is known (and not known) about your brain health. Along the way, he destroys common myths – for example, that puzzles are a great way to fight off dementia – and replaces them with science-based advice on how to live longer, healthier lives with a more functional brain. He also distinguishes typical memory lapses (like forgetting a friend’s name) from more problematic ones (like not remembering how to get home from a frequent destination) – a distinction that I found very comforting.
While he is quick to praise the cognitive strengths of older people (for example, they have better vocabulary), he also points out that our cognitive abilities can decline in early adulthood much earlier in life than we think. Because of this, he recommends making lifestyle changes now to improve brain performance at any age – not just when you hit your 60s.
Keep Sharp includes a questionnaire to assess the risk of cognitive decline – with some surprising questions like “Do you sit 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 is the most important thing they can do to improve the functioning and resistance of their brain to disease, I answer with one word: exercise,” writes Gupta. Being inactive is likely the number one risk factor for dementia, while staying fit can be helpful in preventing it. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of exercise to make a difference: even walking for two minutes every day counts.
Exercise offers many benefits overall, including better endurance, strength, stress management, and immune function. The main reason exercise helps the brain is because it reduces inflammation while stimulating growth factors that help nerve cells function and grow. Because of this, aerobic exercise (more than stationary exercises like weight lifting) offers cognitive benefits – although weight lifting can build muscle.
Get enough sleep
“Sleeping well is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve your brain function and your ability to learn and remember new knowledge,” writes Gupta. That’s because sleep seems to clear the brain of debris that could otherwise build up and cause problems.
Of course, some people have trouble sleeping well. Hence, Gupta’s book reminds her of sleep hygiene principles that can help. He also points out the importance of resting in general and suggests replacing a nap during the day with stress-relieving nature walks or meditation.
To reduce stress and rumination (those annoying thoughts that keep us awake at night), he recommends that people add a gratitude practice to their day – which, he writes, “works 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 meaning
While puzzles may not be the answer to cognitive decline, we need to stimulate our brains through learning and discovery, writes Gupta. Learning creates new neural pathways and increases brain resilience – something that can help fight off the outward symptoms of dementia (like memory loss), even if you develop the tell-tale brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Staying sharp: building a better brain at any age (Simon & Schuster, 2021, 336 pages)
“Think of it as a great backup system in the brain resulting from enriched life experiences such as education and work,” he writes.
Cognitive reserve building doesn’t happen overnight, he warns – it results from a lifelong challenge to 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 as well. The goal of challenging your mind throughout your life is more protective than a formal degree.
Gupta warns that most commercial “brain games” are not effective at warding off dementia, although they can improve memory because they do not practice problem solving or reasoning – keys to cognitive reserve. People would be better off attending a traditional class or learning a second language, he says, because those activities also present more complex challenges and social contact – also important for brain health.
Finding meaning in life can be good for the brain, especially when it comes to interacting with people of different generations or personal learning and challenges. Research suggests that people with a sense of purpose are less at risk of suffering from the harmful effects of dementia – even if their brains contain Alzheimer’s plaques – likely because their purpose stimulates them to take better care of themselves.
“What is good for the heart is good for the brain,” writes Gupta. Even so, there is so much conflicting information about diets and supplements that separating the wheat from the chaff can be difficult (pun intended).
Gupta tries to dispel myths about gluten and so-called “superfoods” (such as kale and fish oil). There’s no evidence that gluten affects people’s brain function, he says, and kale and fish oil, while good for you, won’t stop cognitive decline.
While it is difficult to recommend a perfect brain diet based on research, Gupta cites Martha Clare Morris’ work. As an epidemiologist and founding member of the Global Council on Brain Health, Morris recommends a Mediterranean diet – one high in vegetables, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, and olive oil.
However, this diet may not be palatable or available to everyone. Therefore, Gupta also offers more general dietary recommendations (under the acronym SHARP):
- Stay away from lots of refined sugar.
- Hydrate regularly.
- Add more omega-3s from food sources (not pills).
- Cut down on servings (you may try intermittent fasting).
- Plan ahead – that is, have healthy snacks around so you don’t turn to junk food when you get hungry.
Connect with others
Having close relationships with others that you can count on are important to a happy and healthy life and can help you live longer. It’s also important for brain health, as research suggests that the opposite, loneliness, appears to be a factor in the development of Alzheimer’s.
Gupta suggests combining socializing with other activities to keep you moving or learning. That could mean going for a walk with a friend or taking classes, joining a team sport, or volunteering. Socializing with more diverse people or people of different generations can also be beneficial. And staying connected virtually, while not ideal, can be helpful when living in a remote location without a lot of social support. An added bonus, first time learning how to use social media can be a memory boost.
While it is true that any of these lifestyle factors are good at preventing cognitive decline, Gupta also has advice for people who are already experiencing cognitive decline. Part of his book is devoted to helping readers in decline to assess where they are and how to move forward from there.
For the rest of us, his book is a useful and easy-to-read primer to sharpen your brain at any age – not just to prevent dementia, but to simply enjoy your life better.
“The brain can be continuously and steadily enriched throughout our lives, regardless of 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.”