Keep Sharp seeks to challenge common myths about cognitive decline. Plus, offer pillars you can build on your life to protect yourself as you age. Society has started to believe that we are born with a certain number of neurons, and our brain will only decline with age. However, neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta believes the science says otherwise. Recent research suggests we can create new brain cells and build new connections by adopting evidence-based approaches.
About Sanjay Gupta
Sanjay Gupta is an American neurosurgeon, medical reporter, and writer. He serves as associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Gupta is also associate professor of neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine and a chief medical correspondent for CNN.
Gupta is known for his many TV appearances on health-related issues. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, he has been a frequent contributor to numerous CNN shows covering the crisis. Gupta is the host of the CNN show Sanjay Gupta MD, for which he has won multiple Emmy Awards. Gupta also hosted the 6 part mini-series, Chasing Life.
Growing Brain Cells
Brain cells, also known as neurons, were previously thought to only grow at two stages. Specifically, when you were very young, and your brain was developing or when you had a brain injury. This neural growth is called neurogenesis. However, recent research has shown a normal adult life without injury is associated with new neural growth. Observing growth in adult life shows the importance of adopting the best approaches to ensure our brains continue to grow rather than decline.
Your Brain Is the Key to General Health
“Has a doctor ever reminded you to take good care of your brain besides the importance of wearing a helmet while riding a bike? Probably not.” – Sanjay Gupta
Gupta points out that health is almost always considered in metrics like weight, cholesterol levels, and heart health. However, this means we often forget about the brain. This is shown in the medical world too, where the brain is only spoken about when somebody is already unwell. In Keep Sharp, Gupta argues that putting your brain first will lead to all your other health metrics falling into place.
Without a healthy brain, you will be unable to make healthy decisions. On the other hand, if you put your brain first, you can start making the decisions to develop a healthy body, weight, and heart. On top of this, you will become happier as you will be more confident and your relationships will be healthier.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep has several broad health benefits, but arguably the greatest benefit of sleep is its impact on your brain. Instead of just resting, your brain is consolidating memories while you sleep. Effective adding new information from the day to your overall narrative relies on a good night’s sleep. Additionally, sleep helps you forget irrelevant information from the day before to focus more on what is essential. To Gupta, a good night’s sleep consists of seven to nine hours of sleep.
Another benefit of sleep, recently found by researchers, is that it offers a rinse cycle of your brain. Your body removes certain waste from your brain and conducts specific basic metabolic processes. These processes are more efficient during this period than while you are awake. Therefore, you must start prioritizing your sleep.
The Dirty Dozen: 12 Destructive Myths About the Brain
Gupta introduces 12 destructive myths about the brain that are frequently spread.
Myth #1 The Brain Remains a Complete Mystery
The brain is an extremely complex organ. However, researchers have developed a deep understanding of the brain’s areas and connections. The field of neuroscience is advancing considerably, and our understanding will only continue to grow.
Myth #2 Older People Are Doomed to Forget Things
Cognitive abilities will decline as we age, as we lose brain cells. However, there are also several strengths associated with aging. For example, you will likely have a more robust vocabulary and a better judge of character as you age. Similarly, older people are generally better at managing conflicts. Hence, your memory might decline slightly. However, with age, you will also have become stronger in other areas.
Myth #3 Dementia Is an Inevitable Consequence of Aging
Dementia is a brain disease. Hence, not all old people will develop dementia. Typical age-related changes lead to cognitive decline and a weaker memory, but this does not mean you will develop dementia. Also, these age-related changes can be slowed down, and dementias can be avoided.
Myth #4 Older People Can’t Learn New Things
You can learn a new skill at any stage in your life. It is true that activities like learning a language become harder with age, but it is still possible.
Myth #5 You Must Master One Language Before Learning Another
It will take longer to master two languages simultaneously, but this does not mean it is a bad idea. Your brain does not battle over knowledge, so it is possible to learn both without interference. In fact, research suggests bilingual children have a better general knowledge of language structures.
Myth #6 A Person Who Has Memory Training Never Forgets
Memory is like a muscle. We use it, or we lose it. Therefore, even memory champions would lose their ability if they didn’t continue to train. Ongoing practice is crucial as you age.
Myth #7 We Use Only Ten Percent of Our Brains
Gupta describes this point as evolutionarily ridiculous. It makes no sense for our brain to hold back 90% of our potential. Brains are demanding organs that take a lot of energy to build and maintain. Subsequently, it doesn’t make sense to carry around surplus brain tissue that isn’t being used.
Myth #8 Male and Female Brains Differ in Ways that Dictate Intelligence
There are biological differences between sexes that result in variations of brain functions. However, this difference does not lead to one sex being better equipped than another. The best way to think of this is that we all have a unique brain. Despite this, we all have the capacity to learn, remember, and make sense of the world around us.
Myth #9 A Crossword Puzzle a Day Can Keep the Doctor Away
Crosswords only utilize a specific portion of your brain. Therefore, they can be useful for word-finding but will not train your brain to the extent that it is kept sharp. More broadly, engaging with activities like crosswords should keep your brain more active. Research does suggest an active mind can help reduce cognitive decline.
Myth #10 You’re Dominated By Either Your Left or Right Brain
Your brain is split into two hemispheres. Your right side is specialized for emotional expression, and your left is specialized for language. However, research suggests that both hemispheres almost always work together. Therefore, we cannot label people as left- or right-brained people.
Myth #11 You Only Have Five Senses
Five senses are commonly recited. However, Gupta highlights there are six more senses:
- Proprioception – a sense of where your body parts are and what they’re doing.
- Equilibrioception – a sense of balance, otherwise known as your internal GPS. This sense tells you if you’re sitting, standing, or lying down.
- Nociception – a sense of pain.
- Thermoreception – a sense of temperature.
- Chronoception – a sense of the passage of time.
- Interception – a sense of your internal needs like hunger, thirst, and urge to use the bathroom.
Myth #12 Your Brain Cells are Hardwired, and Any Damage to it Is Irreversible
Previously, scientists believed we were born with a fixed number of neurons that only changed in number as we damaged them with age. However, recent research suggests that our brain is plastic. Plasticity means our brain can continue to develop new neurons and connections between them. You can change your brain for the better or worse through behaviors and even ways of thinking. Negative plasticity, for example, causes changes in neural connections that can be harmful. Negative thoughts and constant worrying can promote changes in the brain that are associated with depression and anxiety. However, the reverse is also possible; try to think positively, and you will recognize position changes in your brain.
The Fantastic Five: 5 Pillars to Keep a Sharp Mind
Gupta concludes the book by offering readers five approaches you can adopt in your life to keep your mind sharp. These pillars are supported by scientific evidence and are fundamental to promoting healthy cognitive function in old age.
Pillar #1 Move
“Exercise can act as a first-aid kit for damaged brain cells, speeding up recovery after injury, stroke or significant emotional stress.” – Sanjay Gupta
As well as displaying physical benefits, both aerobic and anaerobic exercises are good for the brain. Hence, Gupta recommends ensuring you always do some exercise before sitting down for the day. This exercise can be as simple as a push-up or as complex as a yoga class. Movement helps encourage blood flow, which is essential for the repair and maintenance of brain cells.
Pillar #2 Discover
Engaging with a new activity will create new connections within your brain. Essentially, your brain will be strengthened. For example, try to pick up a new hobby as often as you can.
Pillar #3 Relax
Relaxation is crucial for your body, but it is also crucial for your brain. If you overwork yourself, your memory will be impaired. Equally, if you do not get enough sleep, your brain will not repair as effectively. Finally, stress can prevent you from learning new skills and adapting to new situations.
Pillar #4 Nourish
Your diet is fundamental to your brain health. In recent years, the importance of our diet on our brain health has been further uncovered through gut science. Consuming healthy foods, including nuts, seeds, and whole foods, is consistently associated with minimizing cognitive decline. On the other hand, eating foods high in sugar, saturated fat, and trans fat have been associated with brain decline.
Pillar #5 Connect
“Apparently, high socialization is akin to a vital sign.” – Sanjay Gupta
Connecting with others in a face-to-face situation is far more effective than completing a crossword puzzle alone. Having a diverse social network has been found to improve your brain plasticity and help preserve your cognitive abilities.
Comment below and let others know what you have learned or if you have any other thoughts.
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