Be Smart

A Practical Guide for Building A Better Brain at Any Age

Book Recommendation: Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain at Any Age by Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Read this book to learn about:

  • Whether you are at risk for brain decline
  • What causes cognitive decline
  • Why you should make brain health your top priority
  • The five steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing dementia
  • What to do if you, or someone you love, is diagnosed with dementia

If the thought of developing dementia terrifies you, you’re not alone.

As several surveys have shown, people over the age of 55 regularly rank dementia as their most feared health condition. (Cancer is number two.)

It’s a completely understandable fear; our brains make us who we are, in every sense.

Many people also worry about becoming a terrible burden to our loved ones – someone who requires constant care, but no longer has the capacity to fully appreciate life (or the considerable resources being expended to keep them safe and comfortable).

The good news is, there are a number of scientifically proven, preventative measures we can take to significantly reduce our risk of being diagnosed with dementia, and they are clearly outlined (complete with 12-week implementation program) in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s 2021 book, Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain at Any Age.

You may recognize Dr. Gupta’s name from CNN, where he has been an Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent since 2001.

He is also the New York Times bestselling author of four previous books: Cheating Death (2009); Monday Mornings (2012); World War C (2021); and Chasing Life (2007), a book on “functional aging” which was adapted as a 6-part mini-series in 2019, and then an ongoing weekly CNN podcast in 2020.

Additionally, Gupta serves as associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital, and associate professor of neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine, and is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The accomplished neurosurgeon puts his decades of journalistic experience to good use in Keep Sharp, which I found to be a well-balanced and well-written blend of personal storytelling, jargon-free scientific explanation, and practical advice.

Cheat Sheet: Five Ways to Keep Sharp

To get the full benefit of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s interesting and clearly written treatise on brain health and reducing your risk of developing dementia, I highly recommend reading Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain at Any Age.

In the meantime, here are the book’s key takeaways, in terms of how to “keep sharp”.

According to Gupta, reducing your dementia risk means understanding and integrating the five pillars of brain health; Move, Discover, Relax, Nourish, and Connect.

  1. Move: Get your heartrate up for at least for 30 minutes, five days a week.

When people ask Dr. Gupta for the single most important thing they can do to enhance their brain’s function and resiliency to disease, his answer is: exercise.

We already know that people who lead a physically active life have a lower risk of cognitive decline, and research is now emerging to show that greater fitness is correlated with maintaining better processing skills in aging brains.

Keep Sharp

According to Gupta, a good exercise program includes cardio work, strength-training, and routines that promote flexibility and balance. It is undertaken at least five days a week for 30 minutes per session, with at least 20 of those 30 minutes spent at 50% or more above your resting heartrate baseline.

For best results, triple that 150-minute per week recommendation to 450 cumulative minutes of exercise per week, or a little more than an hour of exercise per day.

NB: studies show this goal can largely be achieved by going for a brisk one-hour walk, daily.

2. Discover: Focus on lifelong education to build your cognitive reserve.

As with your body, exercising your brain in challenging ways improves its overall health.

The goal is to build and sustain your “cognitive reserve” or “brain resiliency”, which is believed to help stave off the degenerative brain changes associated with dementia or other brain diseases.

If you think of your brain’s networks like a series of roads, then you can see how the more networks you have, the more options are available to shift directions and arrive at the same destination if one road becomes impassable.

Keep Sharp

The guidance is to focus on lifelong education i.e. acquiring new knowledge and learning new skills. (Games and puzzles like crosswords may work to improve working memory, but do not extend to the other brain functions needed to build cognitive reserve.)

Gupta says a strong sense of purpose is also important; it is believed having a purpose in life may reduce your risk of future dementia by up to 20 percent.

3. Relax: Build good sleep habits to ensure your brain can complete the essential nightly functions required to stay sharp.

Scientists believe critical processes occur in the brain while we sleep.

These include moving recent memories from our hippocampus to our neocortex (so the hippocampus can take in new information) and cleansing our brain of metabolic debris and junk, including sticky proteins that can contribute to the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s.

Chronic inadequate sleep puts people at higher risk for dementia, depression and mood disorders, learning and memory problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain and obesity, diabetes, fall-related injuries, and cancer.

Keep Sharp

As greater mental well-being is also associated with reduced dementia risks, Gupta also advocates for reducing stress and building mental resilience through activities such as meditation, volunteering, keeping a gratitude journal, practicing forgiveness, seeking out laughter, taking breaks from digital devices, and daydreaming. Asking for professional help when stress levels become excessive is also strongly encouraged.

4. Nourish: adopt the MIND diet, which has been shown to slow cognitive decline by up to 7 and a half years.

The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet was created by combining the Mediterranean diet (a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats) and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet (which is low in red meat, salt, added sugars, and fat) and incorporating science-supported dietary changes to improve brain health.

One large study showed the MIND diet could measurably prevent cognitive decline, with the participants who stuck most closely to the diet gaining a 53% reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease over the participants who followed the diet the least.

Consuming certain foods, while limiting certain other foods, can help avoid memory and brain decline, protect the brain against disease, and maximize its performance.

Keep Sharp

When choosing foods, Gupta recommends “slashing sugar, and sticking to the ABCs” (as listed below.)

A-List Foods (to consume regularly): fresh vegetables; whole berries; fish and seafood; healthy fats (e.g. extra virgin olive oil, avocados, whole eggs); and nuts and seeds

B-List Foods (to include in your diet); beans and other legumes; whole fruits; low sugar, low-fat dairy (e.g. plain yogurt, cottage cheese); poultry; whole grains

C-List Foods (to limit); fried food; pastries, sugary foods; processed foods; red meat (e.g. beef, lamb, pork, buffalo, duck); red meat products (e.g. bacon); whole-fat dairy high in saturated fat (e.g. cheese and butter); salt

Additional dietary guidance includes: hydrate smartly (drink plenty of water; limit alcohol); add more omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources (seafood, nuts, and seeds); reduce portions (easier if you prepare your meals at home); and plan ahead (so you don’t resort to eating junk food.)

5. Connect: nurture close ties with friends and family to keep your mind sharp and memories strong.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a comprehensive study that closely analyzes the participants’ lives and biology, has been tracking how health is affected by human connection since 1938. It shows that health and happiness are, above all, about good relationships.

People who are more isolated are less happy, their health declines earlier in mid-life, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

People with fewer social connections have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones.

Keep Sharp

To stay socially engaged, Gupta recommends: making a point of connecting regularly with others in your network; volunteering; looking for community programs that would enable you to pass on your skills; trying organized clubs; and maintaining connections with people who are older and younger than you.

Three More Things

To learn more about protecting your brain health:

Read How Investing in Your Social Life Pays Priceless Dividends, a post on why loneliness in our society is growing, how loneliness affects your physical health (including the brain), and why your friends might be your best defense against dementia.

Listen to Chasing Life: The Rested Brain (September 2023). In this podcast episode, Dr. Gupta speaks with Professor Victoria Garfield about why rest is so important for our brain as we age. (There’s some good news about napping!)

Watch this thought-provoking 6-minute TED Talk on the surprisingly practical steps global health expert Alanna Shaikh is taking to prepare for herself for a possible Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Elizabeth Quayle has been an avid reader and writer for more than 50 years. Since earning a BA in English Lit (1991) and a Journalism Certificate (1996), she has written professionally for diverse public and private companies, as well as magazines, newspapers, non-profits, and government agencies. She started Live Well Anyway in 2023.

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