Editor’s Note: CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon and the author of the new book, “12 Weeks to a Sharper You: A Guided Program.”
At least once a year, we read a sparkling headline about some promising new drug that might help patients with Alzheimer’s disease. And at least once a year, we also hear about failed drug trials and reversals of promises that a cure-all is in sight. I wrote a book about how to keep your brain sharp that came out two years ago. Since then, not much has changed in our understanding of how we can preserve our memories, and the lessons remain as relevant as ever. But one thing has become abundantly clearer: Preventing and even treating forms of dementia are largely driven by lifestyle and the choices we make daily. You are not necessarily doomed to whatever fate you think sits stuck in your genes. If there’s one fact that’s increasingly apparent in scientific circles, it’s that our lifestyle choices contribute mightily to our aging process and risk for disease, likely as much – or perhaps even more – than our genetics.
Indeed, your everyday experiences – including what you eat, how much you move, with whom you socialize, what challenges you face, what gives you a sense of purpose, how well you sleep, and what you do to reduce stress – factor much more into your brain health and overall wellness than you might imagine. We may never have a drug that everyone can take to avoid, let alone cure, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. But we all can access the same toolkit proven to help stack the deck in our favor for a sharp brain for life. The program I outline in my book, and which informed the interactive workbook I have coming out this week – “12 Weeks to a Sharper You: A Guided Program” – features all the practical tools you need to implement in your life today. They can help stave off brain decline, and also help you feel less anxious, sleep better, improve energy, think more clearly, make better decisions, become more resilient to daily stress, and even lose weight and boost immunity – all resolutions most of us aim to make at the transition to a new year filled with hope and high expectations. We all know that change is a challenge, and changing long-established habits takes effort. But it doesn’t have to be tortuous, and it is really not that hard to do. Let me give you six things that will help you in 2023 – your keys to the kingdom of mental sharpness.
Key No. 1: nutrition
Skip the crash diet and simply work on following the S.H.A.R.P. protocol: Slash the sugar and salt; Hydrate smartly; Add more omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources; Reduce portions; and Plan ahead. The S.H.A.R.P. protocol is the easiest way to gravitate toward healthier foods in general and minimize the amount of processed, brain-busting junk. And if you need just one single thing to focus on here, start with the sugar. The average American consumes nearly 20 teaspoons of added sugar daily, most of that in the highly processed form of fructose, derived from high-fructose corn syrup. My guess is that a lot of this sugar intake comes in the form of a liquid – soda, energy drinks, juices and flavored teas. Swap sugar-laden drinks with water and you’ll take on two steps. That’s how to hydrate smartly.
Key No. 2: movement
Physical exertion is the only thing we’ve scientifically documented to improve brain health and function, and it may even slow memory loss. It’s the brain’s only superfood. And it needn’t be formal or require equipment. Walk more, take the stairs, and get up for light activity for two minutes every hour. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those are active. In 2022, a large international study that tracked the health of more than half a million people showed that the simple act of performing household chores like cooking, cleaning and washing the dishes can cut the risk of dementia by a stunning 21%. That put chores as the second biggest protective activity behind more obvious things such as riding a bike. In this same study, regular movement was shown to reduce risk of dementia by 35%, followed by meeting up with friends and family (a 15% lower risk). Again, simple things with huge payoffs.
Key No. 3: downtime
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most extreme, how would you rate your stress level? What if I told you that stress is now considered a trigger for silent neurodegeneration, which occurs years before symptoms develop? Scores of 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 site responsible for memory storage and retrieval. So, by reducing stress, you not only help preserve cells vital to memory but you also improve focus, concentration and productivity. Don’t let toxic stress get in the way of keeping sharp. Take breaks during the day to engage in an activity that’s peaceful, meditative and stress-reducing. It can be as easy as walking in nature, journal writing, 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 daily. I have a trusty meditative routine that calms me down in 90 seconds or less. I simply close my eyes, pay close attention to my breath, and picture my worries in clear bubbles directly in front of me that float weightlessly up and away.
Find what works for you and make it a part of your day – every day.
Key No. 4: sleep
Are you getting restorative sleep? Contrary to popular belief, sleep is not a state of neural idleness. It is a critical phase during which the body replenishes itself in a variety of ways that ultimately affect every system, from the brain to the heart, the immune system, and all the inner workings of our metabolism. You can think of sleep as your brain’s rinse cycle for clearing out junk that could contribute to decline and disease. Prioritize sleep as you would anything else important. And start with your bedtime routine. Stop looking at screens a full hour before bed – your smartphone included – and prepare for a good night’s sleep. I bumped my pre-sleep prep time from 30 minutes to an hour and it has made all the difference in my energy and productivity the next day.
Key No. 5: discovery
Are you learning something new every day that’s cognitively stimulating? Staying mentally challenged is vital, so much so that studies show that someone who retires at age 65 has about a 15% lower risk of developing dementia compared with someone retiring at 60, even after other factors are taken into account. Retire late, or never at all. Choose different routes to familiar destinations. Brush your teeth with the non-dominant hand. Skip the solitary games and crossword puzzles and pick up a new hobby that involves other people. Which brings me to the final key …
Key No. 6: connection
We are social creatures who need social connection to thrive, especially when it comes to brain health. Call a friend today. Invite a neighbor over for dinner. Go for a walk with a buddy and talk about your problems. Cherish those relationships. The strength of our connections with others can predict the health of both our bodies and our brains as we go through life. Good relationships protect us. They are a secret sauce to a long, sharp life.
As of 2022, scientists have documented a total of about 75 genes connected to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but carrying these genes is not a one-way ticket to decline. How those genes express themselves and behave may depend largely on your daily habits. Remember that a disease like Alzheimer’s is multifactorial, made up of different pathological features. Which is why prevention and treatments are increasingly becoming personalized – individualized to a person’s biochemistry, from basic parameters like cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar balance, to the state of one’s oral health and gut microbiome, relics of past infections, and even how well you can see and hear. To that end, it helps to keep your numbers in check. Don’t let your cholesterol or blood pressure, for instance, run amok. Same goes for your vision and hearing. In recent years, hearing and vision impairment have been added to the list of modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline.
Your DNA provides your body’s core language, but how that DNA behaves tells the story. In the future, interventional therapies that include a combination of lifestyle habits and drugs may help those stories end well. You’ll also track your risk for cognitive decline over time in the future using a simple app on your smartphone that can help you evaluate your physiology (and your memory) in real time and make suggestions tailored for you. Until we all have that technology at our fingertips, the six keys above afford you a great start and will give you a strong foundation.
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The ultimate goal is to build what’s called cognitive reserve, which is what scientists call “brain resiliency.” With more cognitive reserve, you support cognitive function and can lower your risk of neurodegenerative issues. It’s like having a backup set of networks in your brain when one fails or, worse, dies and is no longer functional. In many aspects of life, the more backup plans we have, the more chances for success, right? Well, the same is true for our brain’s hard- and soft-wiring. And perhaps the most important key to establishing that reserve is to do so over time – years or even decades – before your risk for decline increases with advanced age.
Always remember this: Cognitive decline is not necessarily inevitable. Research suggests healthy habits you can incorporate into your daily life can help protect your brain health for the long term. Think of health as a “top-down” project. Focus on your brain and everything else will follow. Happy New Year!