Forgetfulness, difficulty thinking and performing everyday tasks are normal characteristics of aging, right? According to American physician Sanjay Gupta, head of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, United States, the answer to this question is “no”.
For the doctor, who spent three years collecting evidence and talking to experts around the world about how to understand the brain and how it works better, cognitive decline and dementia are not inevitable consequences of old age.
The findings of this journey are compiled in the book “Sharp Mind: Develop an active and healthy brain at any age”, recently released in Brazil by Sextante. In an interview with GLOBO, by Zoom, Gupta guarantees that it is possible to stimulate the creation of new neurons, improve the health and functioning of your brain at any age.
He also explains the best strategy to keep your mind sharp (spoiler: it’s not a crossword or sudoku) and offers practical—and simple—advice on how to improve cognitive function at any age.
In your book, you cite five pillars of brain health – moving, discovering, relaxing, nourishing and connecting. Which one is more important to sharpen your mind?
I’ve been studying the brain for 25 years and I’ve learned a lot. The regular practice of physical activity is the action that has the effect on brain health proven by the largest number of scientific evidence.
I think people are surprised by this, because common sense says doing crossword puzzles would be better. But exercise is the most reliable way to release BDNF, which stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This is a substance your body either produces or doesn’t. You cannot inject or take a pill of it. And the most reliable way to produce it is through movement. But there is a curious fact about it. Any type of exercise is good for creating those neurotrophic factors that help stimulate brain growth.
However, intense exercise also releases cortisol, known as the stress hormone, and this lessens the impact of growth factors. So, you have to understand that movement is good, but the type of exercise that is good for the brain is different from what impacts the heart. A brisk walk is more beneficial for my brain than a jog.
A good diet is vital too. The brain is extremely sensitive to sugar. To give you an idea of the impact, if someone is taking an exam or has an important meeting and they eat a lot of sugar it will slow down their brain function for a period. People think that eating sugar will give you more energy, but in fact, it’s the opposite.
And does this apply to any age or do the strategies vary by age?
There is no doubt that the earlier you start these strategies, the greater the impact. But even if they are started later, there will be an effect. You may have to adopt more strategies or apply them with greater intensity as you get older, as your brain will not naturally be producing as many new cells. But, deep down, they are the same strategies, in different doses.
Before thinking about treating something with medication, we need to understand the negative impact our actions are having on the brain and address it.
Is it enough, then, to maintain good eating habits to keep the brain healthy?
I am a neurosurgeon and I know that sometimes people need treatments. The biggest lesson for me was understanding that most people in the developed world don’t live the way human beings should. As a species, we should be moving around a lot. In fact, people didn’t sit until they were old. Now, we sit most of our days.
The way we eat is also wrong. We didn’t eat sugar, except when the fruit fell from the trees. Now, we eat hundreds of pounds of sugar a year on average.
Another factor is sleep. In indigenous cultures, people sleep eight to nine hours a night because they don’t look at their cell phones. So my point is, before we think about treating something with drugs, we need to understand the negative impact our actions are having on the brain and address it.
You say that socializing is more important than doing crossword puzzles for the brain. However, in the last two years we have spent most of our time isolated from contact with other people. Will this have any kind of consequences?
Yes and there is a lot of evidence for that. But we need to remember that before the pandemic, there was already talk about the negative impact of isolation and loneliness. The interesting thing is that loneliness is how people feel. Some people may not be interacting with anyone, but they don’t feel lonely. Others may be around a lot of people and still feel alone.
So it’s very important to understand that loneliness doesn’t mean being alone physically. I think that despite the damage, the pandemic also brought great lessons.
First, about the importance of socializing outdoors. We understand that viruses don’t spread very well outdoors, which is a great spot to take a brisk walk. This exercise will be good for your brain. If you can do this with a friend or family member, even better.
The second thing is that we saw that there are other ways to socialize. Before the pandemic, we didn’t have data on virtual connections like this. The data was all based on personal connections.
Now we’re getting a lot of data on the value of just being able to look at someone when we’re talking, see their body language, their mouths moving, even if virtually. My parents are in their late 70s and live in a different state. We used to talk a lot on the phone, but during the pandemic we started doing video interactions and I think that made a big difference.
Not remembering, even for a brief period, what the keys are for is something to be concerned about.
How can people tell the difference between normal forgetfulness and a sign of a neurological problem?
Lack of attention is behind most memory problems. I think we can use the braces example to exemplify this. If you can’t find your lost keys, it’s probably not something to worry about. In most cases, it just means that she just wasn’t paying attention to what she was doing.
To remember something, you need to focus on it. If you weren’t aware when you left your keys somewhere, you haven’t forgotten where you put your keys. You never remembered where you put your keys.
On the other hand, not remembering, even for a brief period, what the keys are for is something to worry about. Another warning sign is when memory problems start to affect your day-to-day in a way that you forget basic things like taking medicine or taking a shower.
In today’s society, multitasking is synonymous with productivity. However, you say that the practice is harmful. Could lack of attention be behind this?
The brain expends energy to switch tasks. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that when you go from one task to another in turn, you’re consuming too much energy and not being as efficient or productive as you think. I’m just as guilty of it as everyone else.
Sometimes you have to do this because you simply need to pick up the kids from school and finish some work. But it needs to be clear that multitasking will not increase your productivity. The more you can organize your day into compartments, for example work on one thing, stop, and then start another, the better.
You talk a lot about cognitive reserve and brain resilience. What is it and how important is it to keep the brain sharp?
All humans use our entire brain, but we probably use 10% of our brain 90% of the time. To build cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s ability to improvise and orient itself around obstacles it encounters, we need to use other parts of the brain more. Most people think they are training their brain by doing crossword puzzles or sudoku puzzles. And while both are very good, those two things will only teach your brain to do something over and over again.
It’s like teaching him to drive down the same street over and over again. To build reserve, we need to exercise different parts of the brain. That means trying new activities. Preferably something involving motor function. And if you can do it differently than you’re used to, even better.
For me, for example, this is painting with my left hand. I’m a terrible artist, but I started painting during the pandemic. And I’m right-handed, but now I’ve become a left-handed painter. This is just one example. It’s worth brushing your teeth or trying to eat with your non-dominant hand.
Whatever it is, just try to do different things. This will activate parts of your brain in ways that have never been activated before, increasing cognitive reserve, which leads to resilience. A resilient brain will look at a given situation and be able to immediately figure out how to deal with it, how to solve the problem, whatever it may be. A brain that doesn’t have much resilience is one that is immediately overwhelmed by the situation. He doesn’t know what to do and is paralyzed.
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