When he’s not on CNN giving updates on the coronavirus, Sanjay Gupta is at his day job, as a neurosurgeon. “I’ve had a longstanding love affair with the brain,” he said.
“You’re a brain surgeon — what’s it like to hold it in your hands?” asked CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook.
“First time I ever operated on the brain, you know, close to 30 years ago now, it was a mystical experience,” Dr. Gupta replied. “You can’t believe that those three-and-a-half pounds are everything to us – all of our pain, all of our joy, all of our memories, all of our learning, everything.”
And in his spare time, Dr. Gupta has written a book about the brain, “Keep Sharp” – specifically, how to keep it in shape. [The book is published by Simon & Schuster, a part of ViacomCBS.]
For Dr. Gupta, it’s personal: “In many ways, this story began when my grandfather developed Alzheimer’s. I saw that as a teenage kid and, you know, it really stuck with me. This has probably been a lifelong journey to try and understand how I could prevent that from happening to me and from anybody else.”
More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia.
Dr. LaPook said, “One of the biggest fears that my patients have is developing dementia. They’ll come in and say, ‘You know what? I couldn’t think of somebody’s name. I know them so well. I was in the middle of a sentence, I lost my train of thought.’ So, how can people know the difference between changes that come with normal aging, and the onset of dementia?”
“This is a topic of conversation #1 in our home,” Dr. Gupta said. “It used to be because my parents were always asking me this question. And now my wife and I are always asking each other this question: ‘Am I starting to become more forgetful?’
“When it comes to discovering if something is just normal sort of memory loss versus abnormal: people lose keys all the time. It becomes more abnormal when you don’t remember exactly what those keys are for.”
It turns out the changes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s disease begin decades before symptoms arise.
“There is some suggestion, right, that even if you’re destined to develop Alzheimer’s in the future, that if your blood vessels in your brain are wide open, if you’re doing everything you can to keep heart healthy, that it might actually push it off, it might actually delay it?” asked Dr. LaPook.
“I think there’s no question now that we can say – and I don’t think we could’ve said this five, ten years ago – but there are things we can do that involve lifestyle changes that could absolutely delay the progression of dementia, and even reverse it.”
Dr. Gupta said the key is doing activities that create “cognitive reserves” in the brain – areas of new nerve growth and wiring that can pick up the slack if needed.
So, let’s get to it. With no miracle drug on the horizon, what’s the prescription for fighting off dementia?
Let’s start with exercise. Put it this way: What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.
Dr. Gupta said, “When you move, it’s almost like you’re signaling to the body and to the brain, ‘I wanna be here. I’m not ready to go!’ What the brain specifically releases [are] these things called neurotrophins; these good chemicals are sort of nourishing the brain.”
“In the United States, a lot of us are going 100 miles an hour, but so many of us do that while sitting down, not moving,” Dr. LaPook said.
“You know, people keep saying that ‘sitting is the new smoking.’ Every time you’re about to sit, say, ‘Do I need to be sitting'” And then just try and moderately move throughout the day. It’s so effective in terms of what it does to the brain and what we can measure it doing to the brain.”
“And there are simple habits that you can do – for example, take the stairs rather than the elevator.”
“It takes months, years to change the heart,” Dr. Gupta said. “The brain can change like that.”
How about diet? You’ve heard about that, too: Eat less red meat, less processed food, more vegetables and fruit – especially, Dr. Gupta says, one kind of fruit: “They always say, Jon, ‘Apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ I think when it comes to the brain, it’s berries. Berries, in terms of what they can do for the brain and some of these certain chemicals that they release, are probably gonna be one of your best foods.”
Any berries? “Just about any berry. … Dive into berries!”
How about working directly on your thinking skills? Crossword puzzles? Video games? What works, if anything?
Dr. Gupta said, “I have nothing against crossword puzzles and even video games and brain-training games and things like that. I think they can be great. We do crossword puzzles, you play the piano, you do it over and over again, and practice makes perfect. That’s absolutely true. But it’s change that builds resiliency. You need the change.
“So, I wouldn’t just do crossword puzzles. The way that I think about it is, if you can get outside your comfort zone in some way every day, you’re probably harnessing other real estate in the brain that you don’t otherwise use very often. Do something that scares you every day! Whatever the metaphor is, whatever works, just do something different. Learn a new skill. I remember talking to these neuroscientists who said, ‘Eat dinner with your left hand tonight if you’re right-handed.'”
Getting a good night’s sleep is another way to stay sharp. There are so-called “garbage collecting cells” that help remove toxins from the brain. And while you’re asleep, memories from the day are processed.
Dr. LaPook said, “Our knowledge about the importance of sleep has really changed over the years. It’s not just a matter of letting our batteries recharge, right?”
“Sleep is such a sophisticated activity that we spend a third of our life doing,” Dr. Gupta replied. “The brain is a remarkably complicated organ. When you go to sleep at night, it’s taking the experiences you had throughout the day and consolidating them into memory. Why do we even have experiences if we’re not going to do the things necessary to remember them, right? We’re learning that the brain is constantly sort of going through this ‘rinse cycle’ at night.”
For one of the best ways to fight off dementia, look no further than your friends and family.
“We know that that social interaction is so critically important,” Dr. Gupta said. “We are social creatures. We know that there are certain neurochemicals that are released when we actually have touch and look someone directly in the eye.
“The best thing you could do overall, in terms of putting it all together for brain health, would be to take a brisk walk with a close friend and talk about your problems.”
Why? “With the brisk walk, you’re getting the movement in. You’re doing it with a friend: You’re getting the social connection in. It turns into this beautiful thing for the relationship, but also for the brain.”
Of course, the coronavirus means seeing friends up-close-and-personal is a little tough right now. But with Americans starting to get vaccinated against COVID, the time when we can move past the pandemic may be approaching.
Dr. LaPook asked, “What people want to know is, when do we get back, if not to normal, towards normal? What do you think?”
“I think we will start to get back to normal a lot sooner than people realize, and I think that could be maybe mid-, end of spring, it’s gonna start to feel a lot more normal,” Dr. Gupta said. “Things will start to open up. People will be out and about more.
“I have three teenage girls. I think they’re gonna be back in school next Fall. I could be wrong, but that’s where it seems like things are heading.”
So, as we look forward to coming out of isolation, here’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Think about doing something for your brain.
“Empathy and kindness, compassion – they do a lot for everybody’s brain, don’t they?” asked Dr. LaPook.
“They are the ultimate sort of nourishment for the brain,” Dr. Gupta replied. “Every sight you see, every sound you hear, everything you touch, feel, whatever it may be, taste – and then the feelings, the experiences that you have through empathy, through these connections with people – is all nourishing the brain as well. It’s really good for the brain.
“It’s why we live.”
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Story produced by Alan Golds. Editor: Ed Givnish.