Can mental decline be delayed or reversed?

Psychologists Henry Emmons and David Alter tackled that life-changing question in their recently released book, “Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom.”

Can you keep your brain in shape?

When I asked the doctors if actively following these 9 keys will delay or prevent cognitive decline, they replied in an email, “The answer may be both.”

“We have to distinguish between delaying or even preventing physical or structural changes in brain tissue from postponing the cognitive or behavioral signs of cognitive decline (e.g., memory loss or diminished planning and organizational abilities). There is no question the 9 keys can delay the expression of cognitive decline, especially when the 9 keys are practiced beginning earlier in life.

“Many studies show that early signs of physical brain changes that eventually show up as dementia may begin 15 or 20 or more years earlier. So, the sooner these 9 keys are put into practice, the greater the opportunity to build brain resilience (more diverse and denser nerve connections in the brain) that appear to be neuro-protective for long-term brain health,” they said.

The 9 keys build greater neural reserve, better enabling us to ward off showing the effects of cognitive decline even when structural changes in our brains may be developing. “As to actually preventing these physical changes in the brain from ever arising, the positive evidence is still accumulating, but firm conclusions are premature,” the psychologists said.

What is a youthful brain?

So, what are the 9 keys in developing a youthful brain?

A youthful brain loves movement, is well-rested, well-nourished, cultivates curiosity, flexible, optimistic, empathetic, well-connected and authentic. In a press release for the book, the doctors offer these strategies in developing a youthful brain:

  • Get active. Staying in motion tones down the body’s stress response and creates “brain fertilizer” in the form of chemicals, like the protective protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Exercising and moving the body mindfully through yoga, gardening, dancing and even cooking will improve brain health, energy and emotional resilience.
  • Sleep well. Keep the bedroom dark, quiet, cool and comfortable, and get electronic devices out of there! Get up at (or near) the same time every day, seek out bright light, take care with caffeine and alcohol, and stop any work at least 1 to 2 hours before bedtime. Sleeping deeply before learning something new helps move that fresh information efficiently from short- to long-term storage, while sleeping after learning helps cement the new memories.
  • Eat right. Commit to a varied diet with lots of whole foods, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, fiber, probiotics and minimal sugar. Eat more mindfully by slowing down, savoring each bite and stopping when you’re satisfied, not stuffed. This will help protect against harmful compounds linked to Alzheimer’s disease called advanced glycemic end products (AGEs) and oxidative stress, a natural yet harmful byproduct of brain cell energy production.
  • Cultivate curiosity. Pursue unexpected or spontaneous activities that take you out of your comfort zone, like attending a free show, art fair, movie theater premiere, restaurant opening or another event new on the scene. The ultimate goal doesn’t need to be finding an activity that you’ll fall in love with, but simply stimulating your senses by experiencing something new.
  • Pay it forward. Share wisdom as a parent, grandparent, colleague, tutor or coach. The later stage of life is a time when creativity, moral thinking, problem solving, the softening of biases and prejudices, and self acceptance. Older adults play vital roles in shaping children’s world views and increase empathy skills in both “student” and “teacher.”

Small changes may pay big dividends

What is the essential message of the psychologists’ book?

The doctors say, “Aging by itself is neither good nor bad. It just is. But, how we engage our aging is largely a matter of the many small changes we make each and every day that largely determine the path our life will follow. ‘Staying Sharp’ offers a clear and accessible set of skills that when practiced regularly have been shown to forge a path to a youthful brain, vibrant mind and an awakened heart.”

Are you working toward having a more youthful brain?

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