Your New Year’s resolutions will require more creativity this year since the pandemic is keeping many gyms closed. But CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says it’s not only important to find a way to stay active in 2021, but to put more focus on the control center of the body: our brain.
He should know. The man who has guided us through the spikes and surges of COVID-19 somehow finds time to perform brain surgery at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital where he’s associate chief of neurosurgery. And he’s now out with the book, “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age,” an outgrowth of what Gupta has called his “longstanding love affair with the brain.” I spoke with him about why it’s important to keep your brain sharp and how best to do it:
Next Avenue: Why should our New Year’s resolution begin with improving our brain health?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Everything else is derivative from that. You’re much more likely to improve all other aspects of your health if you start with your brain health. If for no other reason, you’ll have better judgment. You’ll make better decisions about the other things in your life that affect your health, such as how you nourish your body.
Before you recommend what we should do to get our brains in shape, take us inside the brain so we know what the goal is.
You’re trying to create a way of life that is constantly recruiting all these different parts of your brain. If you draw a surface map of your brain and you say we have a million roads in the brain, know that we may be really good at using only 100,000 of them.
Whatever way you’re living, your life has a really predictable, repetitive nature to it. And it works really well for you because you are a highly functioning person. But once you start to actually open up other roads in your brain, other things happen as a result. One is that you start to connect patterns from different parts of your life that you were missing before.
So while we may think we’re stuck with the brain we have, we can actually improve our brain’s performance?
Absolutely. There are ways to optimize your brain now. For so many people, it’s seen as an impenetrable, immutable, unchangeable organ. It was seen that way even in the medical community for a long time. That’s how I was trained — neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells) wasn’t something that we really thought of until I finished my neurosurgery training in 2000.
Since then, the neuroscience community has learned that what will improve your cognitive reserve, your brain’s resiliency, make you less likely to develop dementia — able to remember things better and consolidate memories, no matter your age.
So, what’s the best technique to open up new roads and make new connections?
The way to get there is to basically shake it up a little bit, get outside your comfort zone, do something that scares you every day.
When you do that, you also find that as you get older, inevitably, some of the roads that you’re using all the time can lead to construction or they become blocked. And for a lot of people, when that happens … they start to have symptoms of a brain that is not working as well.
Your reasoning skills and ability to connect patterns — even things like empathy — they start to decrease as well if the roads are blocked. But if you have a lot of ancillary roads and trails, it’s not only serving you well now in your life when you when you’re highly functioning, but it’s also creating that cognitive reserve and acting as a buffer, a resilience against disease later on.
You debunk the common belief that cognitive decline is inevitable as we grow older. It’s one of the 12 destructive myths about the aging brain that you call the “dirty dozen.”
About a year and a half ago. I was in the operating room. A patient had just come into the emergency room with a subdural hematoma (a blood collection between the outer layer of the brain and the brain itself that puts pressure on the brain). I’m told the patient is 93 years old and ask, ‘What kind of shape is this person in? Is an operation warranted?’
His family said he’s an incredibly high-functioning person. In fact, he got the injury because he had fallen off the roof of his house, blowing leaves off the roof with a leaf blower. When I talked with him, he was clearly a very high-functioning person. He was looking at his device, following election results in East Africa, where he once did relief work.
He had this subdural and it was clearly causing symptoms. The concern with those subdurals is they can continue to grow… So, I took him to the operating room, removed this collection of blood that was on top of his brain…The brain reliably shrinks with age, but the function of his brain was incredible. What he was able to remember, the things that he engaged in, all these things were at a level that seemed decades younger.
So, it really made me think about this idea that we think it’s preordained that we’re going to lose cognitive function because the organ itself will start to wear and tear with age. And the reality is the organ does wear and tear with age. But what it’s capable of still doing is different than any other organ in the body.
Even if it physically changes, what it cognitively can do can actually reliably get stronger if you continue to engage it. ‘Like a Ginsu knife,’ as my daughter said the other day when I was explaining this to her. ‘The more you use it, the sharper it gets.’
When you’re learning about new things all the time, this isn’t about improving your IQ or your ability to even recall those things that you just learned. It’s about recruiting new neural pathways that connect different parts of your brain that you’re not typically using. And that allows you to see a new pattern that allows you to experience things for the first time
How do we make our brains more resistant to dementia?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that while amyloid plaque was a great hypothesis [for why some people have dementia], these strategies to decrease the amount of plaque in the brain have not clinically improved patients. The trials just haven’t worked.
There are a few new medications — not plaque reducers, but other medications — that can basically slow down progression of Alzheimer’s. But there is no significant therapeutic that works.