My mom gave me Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book, Keep Sharp, about brain health on Mother’s Day last year. Thanks, Mom?
I’m glad she did because I’m at the age where I can still take preventative actions and catch the signs of cognitive decline early — maybe even decades before they present.
If you can get through Part I about the anatomy and science of the brain, which is interesting but a little dense, you’ll get to the action part. Concrete steps you can take to help stave off dementia and cognitive decline. It ain’t just crossword puzzles!
Firstly, who’s at risk for brain decline? Whoa Nelly, a lot of us! It’s no surprise you’re in for a heap of ailments if you’re very obese, have diabetes, sit all day, smoke or eat badly. But other risk factors surprised me, like do you exercise enough? “Enough” is more than I thought. More on that in a minute.
Are you overweight, even a little? Are you a woman?! Do you not sleep enough or soundly? Does your work lack cognitive challenges like mentoring, teaching, or supervision? Do you live with chronic stress? Who doesn’t? Do you drink too much?
We’ve got some work to do, People.
I was pleased to read the A-number one thing all of us can do right now for brain health is…
But not just the 10,000 steps throughout the day that you’ve heard about and can justify as walking around the house to the kitchen and back. He means real exercise – not strenuous necessarily, but constant. Walking is perfect. 450 minutes a week or 64 minutes a day of cardio and strength training. That’s a lot!
I am a very active person but I can improve here. I’m not confident I get 64 minutes of consistent exercise a day. Some days I go well beyond that, others not even close.
This 64 minutes of exercise should be in addition to your active lifestyle of daily household chores like doing laundry or cooking or the activity you do at your job, even if your job is Pilates teaching. I stand, move around and facilitate workouts but that doesn’t count as my hour of exercise for the day. I trick myself into believing that it is, but I still need to do that 64 minutes in addition to my work.
LEARN A NEW SKILL!
Another thing key to brain health is to always be learning. Learn a new skill like a language or sport or anything where you have a “beginner’s brain.” This will literally expand your brain. This year I’ve started learning Spanish. Talk about beginner’s brain. I have a goal by the end of the year to be at a basic conversational level. I’m doing it to communicate in Mexico and stave off dementia. Win win.
Those who keep working or doing something mentally and physically engaging into old age will fare better cognitively than those who don’t. That doesn’t mean if you retire from a long career you’ll get dementia. It does mean you should seek out meaningful and joyful hobbies to pursue. Volunteer, learn a new skill, do something that gets you out of bed in the morning.
Social engagement is key and the pandemic made that tough. Many people have suffered from depression, which can also lead to cognitive decline later in life.
We need 8-9 hours of good, sound sleep every night to clean out and recharge the brain. You know those people who say, “I’m fine on 4 hours”? They’re not. I’m looking at you, Donald Trump. They’re not fine and their brain is suffering. Actually, Sanjay says there’s a teensy-tiny percentage of people with a genetic mutation who are fine on 4 hours of sleep but it’s probably not you. Get a bedtime ritual. Turn off the TV and your devices designed to stimulate your brain and disrupt sleep and get some shut-eye! I can also do better here.
REDUCE CHRONIC STRESS!
We live in a modern world full of everyday stressors. Traffic, electronics, work, finances, air quality – It all adds up to stress. But if you’re living under serious, unrelenting stress like abuse in your relationship or if your work is too stressful, or if you’re living in poverty, these stressors can be very damaging to the brain over time. Change your life situation, if possible. Begin a mindfulness practice like meditation. Cultivate a stress-relieving hobby like knitting, hiking in nature, or reading for pleasure.
NIX THE SUGAR
And of course, there must be a diet component. Surprise, surprise. Too much sugar is bad. Processed food is bad. Cut way down on sugar, processed food, saturated fat and red meat. Eat more dark, leafy greens, fish and fruit. Cut way down on alcohol. Booze in actual moderation is fine but moderation means “up to two drinks a day for men, one for women.” One, being a 5 ounce pour of wine. Do you know how small that is? Measure it out. So few people actually drink moderately. For women especially, alcohol is harder to metabolize as we get older and it increases our risk of breast cancer.
Okay, I think I got it – exercise every day for at least an hour, eat real food and more plants, get to, then stay at your ideal weight, sleep more, stay engaged socially in your community, reduce stress, don’t retire and if you must, do something you love to replace it. Got it? Go!