Keeping My Brain Sharp As I'm Terrified Of Dementia
My dad had Alzheimer’s disease. My mom died of dementia. What about me?
My father suffered from Alzheimer’s for eight very long years before he died in 2015, on his 89th birthday. Just last summer, I moved my mother into a memory care community after she became so forgetful that she neglected to eat, drink, or take her pills. She died of an atrophied brain during the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown, also age 89. It’s only a matter of time for me, right?
Maybe not. While we wait for a breakthrough cure for dementia, it turns out there is much I can do to keep my brain sharp, according to Sanjay Gupta, M.D., CNN’s chief medical correspondent and author of the new AARP-supported book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age (Simon & Schuster, January 5, 2021). Cognitive decline, he says, is not inevitable. The key is prevention. Honestly, I’ve ignored similar advice for decades, but Gupta adds new twists and applies the latest science. And, now I’m ready to listen — and act.
Exercise. More. People who are physically active have a lower risk of cognitive decline. It’s the only thing proven scientifically to boost brain health by changing the brain and protecting memory and thinking skills. I thought I exercised enough —running every other day and swimming a few times a week, all in 30-minute chunks. Gupta exercises an hour a day (or did, prior to broadcasting on CNN seemingly 23 hours a day). Science supports the magic number of at least 450 minutes a week to gain the most benefits and lower your risk of dying prematurely. Walking, gardening, dancing, swimming across the English channel — it all counts. Never exercise? Starting today will help. Can’t fit in 450 minutes this week? Try, or 150 minutes will make a difference. Take heart: I have a friend who works at home and gets in 10,000 steps (equal to about five miles, over an hour) by walking up to the kids’ rooms, down to her office, down to the laundry, back upstairs with the laundry, pacing during conference calls, repeat.
Sleep. More. Stop bragging about how little you sleep. It’s not a badge of honor. Sleep sweeps the crud out of your brain, like the rinse cycle of your washing machine. (Gupta has a more scientific description, of course, but you get the idea.) Sleep is also when your body transfers your short-term memories to long-term memories. I’ve always been embarrassed to admit I need eight or nine hours of sleep. (Most people need only seven to eight.) I feel guilty I’m not getting as much done as my friend Terri, who emails me at 11:30pm about our daughters’ math assignment during her break from researching a paper for her doctoral course after — Wait! There’re more! — a full day at work and taking a socially distance run with a neighbor. Since reading Keep Sharp, I try to hear Gupta saying “good for you” instead of my own “you lazy slug” when I slide under the covers. So cozy.
Get more girlfriends. Studies show that enjoying close ties to friends and family, as well as participating in meaningful social activities, may help keep your mind sharp — more so than sitting solo and doing a crossword puzzle. One study showed people with larger social networks were better protected against the cognitive declines related to Alzheimer’s than people with smaller networks. It’s those who have no one to count on who experience the earliest decline. Lucky me, I don’t feel isolated or worse, lonely. Although I do miss Mom and Dad. So I imagine their spirits hover over me and my daughter. And I take consolation in my very firmly held belief that their brains are intact.
Jodi Lipson is Director of AARP’s Book Division.
Find Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, by Sanjay Gupta (January 5, 2021, Simon & Schuster), based on work of the Global Council on Brain Health, convened by AARP, available wherever books are sold and at AARP.org/KeepSharp.