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

Editor’s note: CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is a practicing neurosurgeon and author of the new book, “12 weeks to get sharper: a guided program”.


At least once a year, we read a scintillating headline about some promising new drug that could help Alzheimer’s patients. And at least once a year, we also hear about failed drug trials and reversals of promises that a panacea is in the offing. I wrote a book on how to keep your brain in shape 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 much clearer: the prevention and even the treatment of forms of dementia depend to a large extent on the lifestyle and the decisions we make on a daily basis. You are not necessarily doomed to the fate that you believe is stuck in your genes. If there is one fact that is becoming increasingly evident in scientific circles, it is that our lifestyle choices contribute powerfully to our aging process and risk of disease, probably as much, if not more, than our genetics.

In fact, your day-to-day 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 reduce stress, factor into much more. on your brain health and general well-being than you might imagine. We may never have a drug that everyone can take to prevent, let alone cure, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. But we can all access the same set of tools that have been shown to help stack the deck in our favor for a lifetime of sharp brains. The program that I describe in my book, and which informed the interactive workbook that I will publish this week: “12 weeks to be sharper: a guided program” – presents all the practical tools you need to implement in your life today. They can help prevent brain deterioration 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—these are all resolutions. for most of us. goal to make in the transition to a new year filled with hope and high expectations. We all know that change is a challenge, and changing ingrained habits takes effort. But it doesn’t have to be torturous, and it really isn’t that hard to do. Let me give you six things that will help you in 2023: your keys to the realm of mental acuity.

Skip the crash diet and just work by following the SHARP protocol: Cut back on sugar and salt; Hydrate smart; Add more omega-3 fatty acids from dietary sources; Reduce portions; and plan ahead. The SHARP protocol is the easiest way to gravitate toward healthier foods overall and minimize the amount of brain-destroying processed junk. And if you need to focus on just one thing here, start with the sugar. The average American consumes almost 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day, most of it in the form of highly processed fructose, derived from high fructose corn syrup. My guess is that much of this sugar intake comes in liquid form: sodas, energy drinks, juices, and flavored teas. Swap sugar-laden drinks for water and you’ll be two steps away. This is how to hydrate smartly.

Physical exertion is the only thing that we have scientifically documented to improve brain health and function, and can even delay memory loss. It is the only superfood for the brain. And it doesn’t need to 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 who are active. In 2022, a large international study that tracked the health of more than half a million people showed that simply doing household chores like cooking, cleaning, and doing the dishes can reduce your risk of dementia by an astonishing 21%. That put household chores as the second most protective activity behind more obvious things like riding a bike. In this same study, regular movement was shown to reduce dementia risk by 35%, followed by hanging out with friends and family (15% lower risk). Again, simple stuff with big rewards.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most extreme, how would you rate your level of stress? What if I told you that stress is now considered a trigger for silent neurodegeneration, which occurs years before symptoms develop? Dozens 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 site in the brain 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 staying alert. Take breaks throughout the day to engage in an activity that is peaceful, meditative, and stress-reducing. It can be as easy as taking a walk in nature, writing in 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 that you can practice daily. I have a reliable meditation routine that calms me down in 90 seconds or less. I simply close my eyes, pay close attention to my breathing, and imagine my worries in clear bubbles directly in front of me floating weightlessly up and away.

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

Do you have a restful sleep? Contrary to popular belief, sleep is not a state of neural inactivity. It’s 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 flushing cycle to remove the junk that could contribute to decline and disease. Prioritize sleep like you would any other important thing. And start with your bedtime routine. Stop staring at screens a full hour before bed, including your smartphone, and get ready for a good night’s sleep. I increased my bedtime prep time from 30 minutes to an hour and that made all the difference in my energy and productivity the next day.

Are you learning something new every day that is cognitively challenging? Staying mentally challenged is vital, so much so that studies show that someone who retires at 65 has a 15% lower risk of developing dementia compared to someone who retires at 60, even after accounting for other factors. Retire late, or never. Choose different routes to familiar destinations. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Skip the solitaire games and crossword puzzles and pick up a new hobby that involves other people. Which brings me to the final 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 over for dinner. Go for a walk with a friend and talk about your problems. Value those relationships. The strength of our connections with others can predict the health of our bodies and brains as we go through life. Good relationships protect us. They are a secret sauce for a long and sharp life.

As of 2022, scientists have documented a total of about 75 genes linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but having these genes is not a one-way ticket to decline. The way those genes are expressed and behave can largely depend on your daily habits. Remember that a disease like Alzheimer’s is multifactorial, made up of different pathological features. That is why prevention and treatments are increasingly personalized, individualized according to a person’s biochemistry, from basic parameters such as cholesterol levels, blood pressure and blood sugar balance, to the state of health. oral and gut microbiome, traces 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 example, go crazy. The same goes for your vision 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 core language of your body, but how that DNA behaves tells the story. In the future, interventional therapies that include a combination of lifestyle habits and medications may help make those stories end well. It will also track your risk of cognitive decline over time in the future using a simple app on your smartphone that can help you assess your physiology (and memory) in real time and make personalized suggestions for you. Until we all have that technology at our fingertips, the six keys above give you a great start and give you a solid foundation.

The ultimate goal is to build what is called cognitive reserve, which is what scientists call “brain resilience.” With more cognitive reserve, it supports cognitive function and may reduce the risk of neurodegenerative problems. It’s like having a set of backup networks in your brain when one fails or worse, dies and no longer works. In many aspects of life, the more alternative plans we have, the more chances of success, right? Well, the same is true for the hard and soft wiring of our brains. And perhaps the most important key to building that reserve is to do it over time—years or even decades—before your risk of decline increases with advancing age.

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

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