By Dominique Popescu, PhD
Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Emmy Award–winning chief medical correspondent, recently released a new book entitled Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain at Any Age. The book explores which activities and lifestyle choices help to support brain health, thinking and memory as we age, as well as insights on how those activities and choices can be incorporated into our daily lives.
In particular, Dr. Gupta breaks down five major areas of focus for maintaining brain health:
These things map very well to some core tenets established in brain health and aging research, both here at the Memory and Aging Program and at other research centers around the world. Let’s take a look at each of these areas of focus and how they align with recent and ongoing research on brain health and Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention.
In the book, Dr. Gupta talks about making sure you break a sweat every day and he stresses the importance of getting out and exercising regularly. Studies have shown that physical activity is very helpful for maintaining cognitive (memory and thinking) abilities. Studies also show that exercise can increase, repair and maintain brain cells.
What’s important to take home from this is that people don’t usually associate exercise with brain health, only heart health and overall physical health. But we’re learning that a lot of what we do for heart health is also good for brain health. So exercising for brain health doesn’t mean you have to add new and extra things to your exercise routine; it just gives us one more very important reason to make sure we’re doing the things that we already know are good for us.
Research continues on the role of exercise in maintaining brain health. The U.S. POINTER Study, the first U.S. study to evaluate the effects of healthy lifestyle changes to exercise, diet, mental and social activity may protect cognitive function in aging adults, is currently being conducted at 5 sites around the nation, including here at the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital. (Learn more about the study and see if you qualify to participate here.)
Another area of focus that Dr. Gupta talks about is always seeking to discover and do new things. In the research world, we talk about the role of cognitive stimulation in maintaining brain health. So, what does that mean? Basically, it’s the idea of “use it or lose it.” As we age, people tend to learn fewer and fewer new things and engage in fewer new activities – and maybe even just fewer activities overall. But the more you continue to learn, adapt and grow, the more “plastic” or “in shape” your brain remains.
So it really comes down to finding ways to remain engaged and empowering yourself to continue to interact with the world and your environment in different ways. That can be tough, especially this past year when the pandemic meant that we had to limit so many activities. But actually, even that can be alright – when we’re forced to change our daily routine, it does compel us to adapt and that can be beneficial to staying cognitively engaged. Of course, it can also be very stressful. And while some stress is good for our brains, when that stress becomes constant it can have negative effects instead (more on that in just a bit).
The importance of sleep is another major focus of the book. Getting enough quality sleep is one of those things I think we all know we should be paying attention to, but is often the first to be sacrificed when life gets busy. But when we’re sleeping is actually when your brain is sort of “cleaned.” Your memories are consolidated, your brain cells are nourished and that helps to promote key important brain functions.
That’s why when we don’t get enough sleep we’re not as quick as we could be, and maybe not as happy; we feel foggy instead of recharged and energetic. If you’re constantly not getting enough sleep, those feelings will become your daily life and your brain will suffer in the long run. So make sure you’re getting all the sleep you need.
The other thing to pay attention to is stress. It’s hard to get good quality sleep or to stay relaxed during the day if we’re constantly under high amounts of stress. But occasional stress is actually good, because it can motivate us to do things. One new perspective that Dr. Gupta’s book gave me was that it’s unrealistic to eliminate stress but we can reduce and manage it. One way we can do that is through physical activity, which has a direct effect in the brain on reducing stress. I’m an avid runner and I know when I miss running for a few days I feel that I can’t manage my own stress as well. It’s interesting how all of these healthy habits are really inter-related.
So slow down, stop multitasking and find time to relax and exercise. And, get the sleep you need – typically anywhere between 7 and 9 hours per night.
The same rule for exercise applies to diet as well – the things most of us know to be good for heart health and overall physical health are also good for brain health. There’s even a research-backed diet, the MIND diet, that has been developed specifically to provide the maximum brain health support possible. Another reason to eat a healthy diet is because it of course has a direct impact on your gut as well. There’s a burgeoning field of research into gut microbiomes and the role that plays in the connections between gut and brain health.
The final major theme that Dr. Gupta talks about in his book is the importance of staying connected socially, and diversifying our social networks. Connecting with family and friends is extremely important to mental health as well as brain health. Connecting with new and different people is also really great because it can improve brain plasticity – and the ability to grow and change, even in adulthood, preservers cog ability. The last year has really, really put that point into sharp focus.
Move, discover, relax, nourish and connect – these are the key tenets of the book and they are things that research has shown to be incredibly important for brain health. Lucky for us, they are also the same things that are important for heart health, gut health and overall wellbeing so that can function the best we possibly can and live our best life.
The earlier you start, the better off you’ll be; you don’t (and shouldn’t) wait until you’re older or become concerned to act. By doing these things now, you can help to preserve your cognition and physical health later in life, but you’ll also lead a healthier and happier life right now.
Dr. Popescu completed her Ph.D. in Integrative Neuroscience with a focus on creating, validating and assessing models of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) at Stony Brook University. There, she completed advanced research training in modifiable lifestyle factor interventions and completed course development, online-administration and traditional teaching training.
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