Alzheimer's / Dementia

3/30/2021 | By Annie Tobey

Neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta shares insights into building a sharper brain. Also chief medical correspondent for CNN, Gupta delves into how people of all ages can keep their minds strong and offers a program for achieving that goal.

You can’t find your cell phone. You forget the name of the movie you saw last week. You see your child’s high school band director in the grocery store and can’t remember her name. “Oh, no! Is it finally happening?” you wonder. “Are these signs of dementia?”

A recent study asked Americans age 60 or older the condition they were most afraid of getting. The number one fear was Alzheimer’s or dementia (35%), followed by cancer (23%) and stroke (15%).

Fortunately, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, cognitive decline is not inevitable. In fact, Gupta goes beyond simply being able to remember, beyond being a whiz at trivia. “You can be more productive and joyful, as well as more present for everyone with whom you interact,” he writes. “You will also develop more of that critical ingredient, resilience, so the optimization of your brain isn’t derailed by the trials of daily life.”

He also points out, “Aging does not mean there will be inevitable cognitive decline. Any cognitive decline, be it ‘normal’ or abnormal, is more than just a factor of age and brain degeneration.” And “We can have a huge impact in our brain’s fate with simple lifestyle choices.”

The Foundation

To help readers work toward building a sharper brain, Sanjay Gupta begins with a self-assessment, 24 questions that highlight top risks of cognitive decline. The chapters that follow look at that fascinating “inner black box.” The author uses his medical training and experience to explain more about the brain, in an easy-to-follow manner.

Keep Sharp describes eight possible ways the brain can break down: damage of beta-amyloid and tau in brain cells; blood flow; metabolic disorders; introduction of toxic substances; infections; and head trauma. Following the litany of brain enemies comes a look at its friends – six science-based ways to nurture brain health.

Keep your brain sharp!

Building a Sharper Brain

What if you could take actions that would stave off dementia as you age? Gupta offers tips, beginning with a surprising finding:

1. Start young!

Among people who are 85 years old or older, one-third have dementia – and in this group, signs of brain decline began when they were between 55 and 65. The brain decline of the 10 percent of 65-year-olds who have developed dementia began when they were between 35 and 45.

2. Move.

According to Gupta, exercise is the most important way to enhance your brain’s function and resiliency to disease – “as in move more and keep a regular physical fitness routine.” Even if you haven’t exercised consistently in the past, he says, you can start now and make a difference.

In addition to healthy cardiorespiratory fitness, you should work to maintain muscle, too. Muscle mass aids in recovery from illness and injury, the ability to stay mobile and perform everyday tasks, and maintaining metabolic health.

3. Retain a sense of purpose and mental stimulation.

Five keys for keeping your brain active, healthy, and engaged are:

  • Delay retirement – and when you do retire, find alternate activities that are stimulating and enjoyable.
  • Engage in lifelong learning.
  • Play puzzles and games, especially speed-training exercises. (However, know that most games typically only target specific strengths, while classes and similar learning experiences provide greater complexity.)
  • Have a sense of purpose.
  • Be in a state of “flow.” This zen-like feeling of immersion comes from different activities for different people: making art, playing an instrument, running, gardening, etc.

4. Sleep … and relax!

Sufficient sleep – in quantity and quality – is essential for maintaining physical and mental health. Sleep cleanses the brain, “washing away metabolic debris and junk,” including sticky proteins that can contribute to amyloid plaques.

Daytime relaxation is important, too, says Gupta. This can come from stress-reduction activities such as mindfulness exercises, yoga, meditation, gratitude reflections, humor, focus, decluttering, and daydreaming. When needed, it can include seeking help from a health professional.

5. Eat well.

Fortunately, Keep Sharp doesn’t include a specific, branded diet. Nor does it box you into a specific, hard-to-stick-to regimen (in part because that would counteract the relaxation you gain from step 4!). Instead, the book gives “a general framework for creating meals that satisfy your preferences while staying on a path that fosters brain health.”

Gupta does, however, endorse the MIND diet, a mash-up of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. It includes “plenty of vegetables (especially green leafy ones), nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and, for those interested, wine.” It steers clear of “red meats, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and other sweets, and fried or fast food.”

He adds several other easy-to-follow recommendations: reducing sugar intake significantly (including artificial sweeteners); hydrating; adding more omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources; using turmeric; and more.

6. Connect with others.

Social connections and relationships are essential for a building a sharper brain, and loneliness is toxic. Touch is important, too, and can decrease the stress hormone cortisol.

The best news, especially these days, is that even digital engagement can be beneficial. 

A 12-Week Program to Sharpen Your Mind

Keep Sharp includes a 12-week program that incorporates suggestions discussed throughout the book. Each week includes ideas for adding habits that will improve your brain health, such as “Go for a 20-minute power walk after lunch most days of the week,” “Invite a neighbor over for dinner,” and “Download a meditation app … and use it daily.”

Go Deeper with Sanjay Gupta’s Book

Although this overview highlights salient points in Keep Sharp, the easy-to-digest science behind the principles and the 12-week program make the book itself a worthwhile investment. And it’s oh so much cheaper than dementia!

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey