by Stephen Doherty
“The energy of the mind is the essence of life!” ~Aristotle
I lost my mother to cancer and my father to Alzheimer’s Disease. The latter was infinitely more difficult and heart wrenching. While my mother was able to laugh and cry – reminiscing until her last moments – my once intellectually brilliant father was subjected to the agony of years of deteriorating cognitive skills.
This left my dad devoid of his life’s memories and the cerebral gymnastics that were once his space ship. It was like bearing witness to a family vault that had been looted of a lifetime of treasured momentos and artifacts. The fact that there is no cure for this disease only heightened the feelings of helplessness and dread.
I recently finished a book by the famed and renowned neurosurgeon, Dr Sanjay Gupta, titled “Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain.” In it, I found 800 pages of fascinating details about the complexities and miraculous wonders of the human brain – most of which I never knew.
It dispels many myths we’ve come to accept about the brain but it also reinforces some necessary truths that we could all benefit from – especially in the arena of staving off dementia and even Alzheimers Disease! While not currently curable, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting we do have it within us to effecctively combat this most hideous of life-ending afflictions.
The following five directives are critical in the battle to maintain our cognitive fitness. They seem almost simplistic, but in unison they represent our best opportunity to maintain and even strengthen the power of our own brains – at any age, but ceretainly a matter of heightened criticality over fifty.
Garbage in – garbage out. The human body has an almost infitismal ability to function on less than perfect nutrients. Our younger selves survived, even thrived, on junk. Not so much, later. We create a lot of metabolic byproducts from overeating. And a lot of those metabolic byproducts get accumulated in the brain. Less, and better, nutrients (especially berries) are the ticket to maintaining cognitive health.
The power of rest is a known, if not oft ignored, commodity. In the last five years, I’ve upped my nightly regime to almost nine hours and have reaped the whirlwind in terms focus and cognitive flexion. The brain is very metabolically active during sleep. More is better. Sleep is the proverbial cognitive band-aid. Healthwise – there is no greater investment of time.
Discover is a synonym for continued learning! Reading. Jigsaw puzzles. Writing. Learning a new language or musical instrument. Art. Perversely – the same video games that has sentenced generations of kids to sofa-sloth status, may hold the key to cognitive resurgence and vibrance. The hand-eye coordination necessary for video game success are precisely the exercises needed to keep a sharp and vibrant mind. Research suggests that this medium may hold the key to extended brain health. Explore new skills and DO lots of things!
Meaningful connections are crucial to keeping a sharp mind. No wonder that many disenfranchised elderly, who have become secluded and lonely, also experience accelerated deterioriation of their minds. Active and fervent relationships sprinkled with passionate empathy and vulnerability – seems to provide a powerful elixir to aging minds. Keep your doors and windows open and shout out visiting invitations to any and all! I can’t imagine any worse malady than being cut-off, purposely or otherwise, from friends and family.
The word move instead of exercise was deliberate. Mild forms of exercise – especially brisk walks – creates neurogenesis. (The growth and development of new brain tissue) Our beings were not designed to be sedentary. Quite the contrary. In Dr Gupta’s own words. “It’s kind of like the Miracle Grow for your brain. The best way to do it is take a brisk walk with a close friend and talk about your problems. That sort of brings all of these things together. Take your berry smoothie with you, and you’ve pretty much nailed it!”
These are healthy-habits that will provide positive benefits throughout our lives. They become ever-more critical, with each passing year, to maintaining a strong and sharp mind capable of fending off nature’s best attempts to diminish it.
It is our most important muscle and with proper care – can be useful and vibrant well past its expiration date. It comes with no guarantees against Mother Nature’s worst inclinations, but it provides us the best chance at surviving, even thriving, amidst her unpredictable machinations.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this and you will find your strength.” -Marcus Aurelius