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

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Editor’s note: CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is a practicing neurosurgeon and the author of the new book, “12 Weeks to Improve Yourself: A Guided Program”.


At least once a year we read a sparkling title on a promising new drug that could help patients with Alzheimer’s disease. And at least once a year, we also hear about it failed drug trials and reversals of promises that a panacea is in sight. i wrote a book About how to keep your brain sharp that came out two years ago. Since then, little 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: preventing and even treating forms of dementia largely depends on the lifestyle and choices we make every day. You are not necessarily doomed to the fate you think is ingrained in your genes. If there’s one fact that’s becoming increasingly evident in scientific circles, it’s that our lifestyle choices could contribute to our aging process and risk of disease, probably as much – if not more – than our genetic.

Indeed, your daily experiences – including what you eat, how much you move, who you socialize with, the challenges you face, what gives you meaning, the quality of your sleep and what you do to reduce stress – matter a lot more. . We may never have a drug that everyone can take to prevent, let alone cure, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. But we all have access to the same proven toolkit to help stack the game in our favor for a sharp brain for life. The program I describe in my book, and which informed the interactive workbook I’m going out this week – “12 weeks to become sharper: a guided program” presents 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 your energy, think more clearly, make better decisions, become more resilient to everyday stress, and even losing weight and boosting your immunity – all resolutions most of us aim to make as we transition into 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 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 follow the SHARP protocol: cut back on sugar and salt; Hydrate smartly; Add more omega-3 fatty acids from food sources; reduce portions; and plan ahead. The SHARP protocol is the easiest way to switch to healthier foods in general and minimize the amount of processed waste and headaches. And if you only need one thing to focus on here, start with sugar. The average American consumes nearly 20 teaspoons of added sugar daily, most of it in the form of highly processed fructose, derived from high fructose corn syrup. I guess a lot of that sugar intake comes in the form of a liquid – sodas, energy drinks, juices and flavored teas. Replace sugary drinks with water and you’ll be two steps away. Here’s how to hydrate smartly.

Physical exertion is the only thing we’ve scientifically documented to improve brain health and function, and it can even slow memory loss. It’s the only brain superfood. And it doesn’t have 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 United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cognitive decline is almost twice as common in inactive adults compared to those who are active. In 2022, a large international study This health tracker of more than half a million people showed that simply doing household chores like cooking, cleaning and washing up can reduce the risk of dementia by 21%. This puts chores as the second most protective activity behind more obvious things like riding a bike. In that same study, regular movement was shown to reduce dementia risk by 35%, followed by socializing with friends and family (a 15% lower risk). Again, simple things with huge payoffs.

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? Dozens of well-designed studies consistently show that chronic stress can affect your ability to learn and adapt to new situations, and subtly erode your cognition. 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 vital cells for memory, but also improve focus, concentration and productivity. Don’t let toxic stress keep you from staying sharp. Take breaks during the day to indulge in a peaceful, meditative, and anti-stress activity. It can be as simple as walking in nature, writing in a journal, spending time with a pet, or even daydreaming. Download an app today that will take you on a guided tour through a deep breathing exercise that you can practice daily. I have a faithful meditative 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 out.

Find what works for you and incorporate it into your daily life – every day.

Do you have restful sleep? Contrary to popular belief, sleep is not a state of neuronal idleness. This is a critical phase in which the body replenishes itself in various ways, which ultimately affects all systems, from the brain to the heart, the immune system and all the cogs of our metabolism. You can think of sleep as your brain’s flushing cycle to flush out waste products that could contribute to decline and disease. Prioritize sleep as you would any other important thing. And start with your bedtime routine. Stop staring at screens a full hour before bed – your smartphone included – and get ready for a good night’s sleep. I cut my prep time before sleep from 30 minutes to an hour and it made all the difference in my energy and productivity the next day.

Do you learn something new every day that is cognitively challenging? Staying mentally challenged is vital, so much studies show that a person retiring at age 65 is about 15% less likely to develop dementia than a person retiring at age 60, even after controlling for other factors. Retire late or never at all. Choose different routes to familiar destinations. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Avoid solitary 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. Cherish those relationships. The strength of our bonds with others can predict health of our body and our brain during our lifetime. Good relationships protect us. They are a secret sauce for a long and lively life.

From 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 ticket to decline. How these genes express themselves and behave can largely depend on your daily habits. Remember that a disease like Alzheimer’s is multifactorial, made up of different pathological characteristics. That’s why prevention and treatment are increasingly personalized – individualized based on a person’s biochemistry, from basic parameters like cholesterol levels, blood pressure and glycemic control, to the state from 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 under control. Don’t let your cholesterol or blood pressure, for example, run wild. 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 your basic body language, but the behavior of that DNA tells the story. In the future, interventional therapies that include a combination of lifestyle habits and medications could help these stories end well. You’ll also track your risk of cognitive decline over time using a simple app on your smartphone that can help assess your physiology (and memory) in real time and make suggestions tailored to you. Until we all have this technology at our fingertips, the six keys above give you a good start and will give you a solid foundation.

The ultimate goal is to build what is called cognitive reserve, or what scientists call “brain resilience.” With more cognitive reserve, you support cognitive function and may reduce your risk of neurodegenerative problems. It’s like having a set of backup networks in your brain when one breaks down or, worse, dies and is no longer functional. In many aspects of life, the more backup plans we have, the more likely we are to succeed, right? Well, so does 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 health in the long run. Think of health as a “top-down” project. Focus on your brain and everything else will follow. Good year!

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