Dr. Sanjay Gupta: 6 keys to keeping sharp in 2023

Editor’s Note: CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon and author of the new book, 12 Weeks for a Sharper You: A Guided Program.



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At least once a year we read a bright headline about some promising new drugs that could help patients with Alzheimer’s disease. We also hear, at least once a year, reversal of failed drug trials and promises that a cure-all is nigh. I wrote a book that came out two years ago on how to keep your brain sharp. Since then, our understanding of how to preserve our memories has not changed much, and the lessons remain as always. But one thing has become much clearer: Preventing and even treating forms of dementia is largely driven by lifestyle and the choices we make daily. You are not doomed to the fate that you think is stuck in your genes. If there’s one fact that’s becoming increasingly clear in scientific circles, it’s that our lifestyle choices contribute to our aging process and risk of disease probably just as strongly — or perhaps more — than our genetics.

Indeed, your daily experiences—including what you eat, how much you move, who you socialize with, what challenges you face, what gives you a sense of purpose, how well you sleep, and what you do to relieve stress—are much more influential. It has a greater impact on your brain health and overall well-being than you can imagine. We may never have a drug that everyone can use to prevent, let alone cure, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. But we all have access to the same set of tools that have proven to help build the deck for a lifetime of sharp brains. The program that I outlined in my book and inspired this week’s interactive workbook – “12 Weeks for a Sharper You: The Guided Programme” – contains all the practical tools you need to apply in your life today. It can help prevent brain regression and also help you feel less anxious, sleep better, increase your energy, think more clearly, make better decisions, be more resilient to daily stress, and even lose weight and boost immunity – all decisions are valid for most of us. We aim to transition into a new year full of hope and high expectations. We all know that change is a challenge and it takes effort to change deep-rooted habits. But it doesn’t have to be roundabout, and it really isn’t that hard to do. Let me give you six things that will help you in 2023 – the keys to the kingdom of mental acuity.

Skip the fast diet and try to follow the SHARP protocol: Cut back on sugar and salt; Hydrate wisely; Add more omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources; Reduce portions; and plan ahead. The SHARP protocol is the easiest way to switch to healthier foods overall and minimize the amount of processed, brain-damaging junk. And if you only need one thing to focus on here, start with sugar. The average American consumes about 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day, most of which is in the highly processed form of fructose from high fructose corn syrup. By my estimation, the bulk of that sugar intake comes in the form of liquids—sodas, energy drinks, juices, and flavored teas. Replace sugar-laden drinks with water and you’ll have two steps. This is the way to hydrate wisely.

Physical exertion is the only thing we have scientifically documented to improve brain health and function, and it can even slow memory loss. It is the brain’s only superfood. And it doesn’t have to be formal or require equipment. Walk more, use the stairs, and get up for two minutes of light activity every hour. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cognitive decline is almost twice as common among inactive adults as compared to those who are active. A major international study tracking the health of more than half a million people in 2022 showed that doing simple household chores such as cooking, cleaning and washing the dishes can dramatically reduce the risk of dementia by 21%. This makes housework the second largest preventative activity behind the more obvious things like cycling. In the same study, it was shown that exercising regularly reduced the risk of dementia by 35%, followed by meeting friends and family (15% lower risk). Again, simple things with big payoffs.

How would you rate your stress level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most extreme? What if I told you that stress is now considered a trigger for silent neurodegeneration that occurs years before symptoms develop? Numerous well-designed studies routinely show that chronic stress can impair your ability to learn and adapt to new situations, and subtly erode your cognition. More specifically, stress destroys cells in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memory storage and retrieval. Thus, by reducing stress, you not only help protect cells vital for memory, but also improve focus, concentration and productivity. Don’t let toxic stress get in the way of staying sharp. Take breaks during the day to engage in a peaceful, meditative and stress-reducing activity. Walking in nature can be as easy as writing a journal, spending time with a pet, or even daydreaming. Download an app today that will give you a guided tour through a deep breathing exercise you can practice every day. I have a reliable meditation routine that calms me down in 90 seconds or less. I just close my eyes, pay close attention to my breathing, and picture my worries as clear bubbles floating weightlessly up and down directly in front of me.

Find what works for you and make it part of your day – every day.

Are you getting restful sleep? Contrary to popular belief, sleep is not a nervous idle state. This is a critical phase during which the body renews itself in various ways that ultimately affect every system, from the brain to the heart to the immune system and the entire inner workings of our metabolism. You can think of sleep as your brain’s rinsing cycle to clear garbage that can contribute to decline and illness. Prioritize sleep as you do with everything else that matters. And start with your bedtime routine. A full hour before bedtime, stop staring at screens – including your smartphone – and get ready for a good night’s sleep. I’ve increased my pre-bedtime prep time from 30 minutes to an hour and it has made a huge difference to my energy and productivity the next day.

Do you learn something new cognitively stimulating every day? Staying mentally challenged is vital, as research shows that someone who retires at age 65 has about a 15% lower risk of developing dementia than someone who retires at age 60, even after other factors are taken into account. Retire late or not retire at all. Choose different routes to familiar destinations. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Skip the single player games and crossword puzzles and take up a new hobby involving other people. Which brings me to the last key…

We are social creatures who need social connection to thrive, especially when it comes to brain health. Call a friend today. Invite a neighbor to dinner. Take a walk with a friend and talk about your problems. Nurture these relationships. The strength of our connections with others can predict the health of both our bodies and brains as we go through life. Good relationships protect us. They’re the secret sauce for a long, tangy life.

As of 2022, scientists have documented a total of about 75 genes linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but carrying these genes is not a one-way down ticket. How these genes express themselves and behave may depend heavily on your daily habits. Remember that a disease like Alzheimer’s is multifactorial, consists of different pathological features. This is why prevention and treatments are becoming increasingly personalized – from key parameters such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar balance to a person’s biochemistry, such as a person’s oral health and gut microbiome, remnants of past infections, and even how. You can see and hear well. To that end, it helps you keep your numbers under control. For example, don’t let your cholesterol or blood pressure go crazy. The same goes for your seeing and hearing. In recent years, hearing and visual impairment have been added to the list of modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline.

Your DNA provides the basic language of your body, but how that DNA behaves tells the story. In the future, interventional therapies involving a combination of lifestyle habits and medications may help these stories turn out well. You’ll also monitor your risk of cognitive decline in the future using a simple app on your smartphone that can help you assess your physiology (and memory) in real time and make tailored recommendations. Until this technology is at our fingertips, the six keys above will get you off to a great start and build a solid foundation.

The ultimate goal is to build up the cognitive reserve that scientists call “brain flexibility.” With more cognitive reserve, you can support cognitive function and reduce your risk of neurodegenerative problems. It’s like having a spare set of networks in your brain when someone fails or worse dies and is no longer functional. In many areas of life, the more backup plans we have, the better our chances of success, right? The same goes for the hard and soft connections of our brain. And perhaps the most important key to building that reserve is to do so over time—years or even decades—before your risk of decline increases with advanced age.

Always remember this: Cognitive decline is not necessarily inevitable. Research shows that healthy habits you can incorporate into your daily life can help protect your brain health in the long run. Think of health as a “top-down” project. Focus on your brain and everything else will follow. Happy New Year!

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