Read an Excerpt
The Brain Bible
How to Stay Vital, Productive, and Happy for a Lifetime
By JOHN ARDEN
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2014 John Arden
All rights reserved.
Brain Bible Basics
What can we mature adults do to sharpen our brains? This book aims to answer that question with a deceptively simple formula. The differences between a sharp and a dull brain can depend on whether you establish and maintain the factors that I will cover in this book. A large body of research has shown that without these factors the brain dulls, resulting in major health problems, including dementia. By applying them to your daily life you can cultivate a healthy brain capable of thinking clearly and feel positive through the rest of your life.
I have cast the net wide to include the main factors that have been consistently associated with longevity and brain health. In no other period in history have so many fields of scientific inquiry converged to offer a comprehensive understanding of the factors that contribute to a healthy brain. Fields such as cognitive neuroscience, behavioral neurology, gerontology, developmental psychology, and neuropsychology all shed light on the factors that have been shown to contribute to longevity.
Each of the factors described in this book has been discovered by researchers who have followed people on a longitudinal basis through most of their lives. Some subjects in the studies aged well, and others did not. Some developed dementia, whereas others were sharp through the end of their lives. The researchers conducting the studies have identified the common characteristics of those who age successfully and those factors which have led to premature death or dementia.
Though there is no quick fix that can keep your brain healthy, there are plenty of vendors retailing products on the Internet and in health food stores that they claim provide a magic tonic for the brain. The research behind them is extremely weak at best and more regularly fraudulent. The brain, as I will explain in this book, changes with practice. You cannot do just one thing, one time, and rewire your brain for health.
Instead of a gimmicky quick fix, this book offers a formula of the five main factors that have been shown to contribute to brain health. The Brain Bible formula represents the important healthy brain factors that you need to plant now and cultivate for the rest of your life. The research behind each factor in the formula is rich with new developments from neuroscience that have overthrown many of preconceived beliefs about longevity and indeed about the brain. That formula is introduced in Chapter 2, and the remaining chapters describe the factors in detail. Here is a brief description of the chapters that follow.
Brain Research Breakthroughs
This chapter begins by describing how the mature brain is going through a major transition, ripe with opportunity as well as laced with potential risks. Research shows that the health of middle-aged people diverges greatly at this pivotal period as a result of lifestyle and habits. What can mature adults do to take advantage of the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls? The chapter presents the Brain Bible formula that describes five categories of actions mature adults can take to promote healthy, sharp brains through the middle years and into old age. You will learn how brains develop new connections between neurons.
The Education Factor
New learning is critical for the mature adult brain. People who are more highly educated and use their brains to learn new things throughout their lives are more resistant to the symptoms of dementia. The concept of cognitive reserve describes the relationship between learning and the number of synaptic connections between neurons in the brain. The more brain connections that exist, the greater your brain's longevity. A brain that is intellectually challenged demonstrates the positive side of the old adage "Use it or lose it." You'll read several suggestions about learning in order to achieve maximize brain-boosting benefit. Since one of the main complaints by mature adults concerns their spotty memories, the chapter includes suggestions to improve one's memory.
The Diet Factor
Diet dramatically affects the way the brain functions. By learning how to maximize a healthy diet you can enhance brain performance. A wide spectrum of amino acids, precursors to the cornucopia of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, are critical to healthy brain chemistry. Avoiding unhealthy fats and consuming healthy fats can help form the actual structure of the brain cells. Also, avoiding simple carbohydrates, including sugar, is critical for a healthy brain. You'll read suggestions about an optimum diet for a healthy brain.
The Exercise Factor
Exercise has been shown to boost the longevity of the brain. Mature adults must engage in exercise to thrive in their later years. During aerobic exercise a substance sometimes called Miracle-Gro but technically called brain-derived neurotrophic factor is released. It is a kind of tonic for the brain that promotes neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons). Exercise promotes a healthy brain in many other ways too, all of which are described in this chapter. You'll read several suggestions for including regular exercise in your daily routine, including many unconventional ones that are not ordinarily considered exercise.
The Social Factor
This chapter presents new research on the "social brain" and the importance of healthy relationships to a sharp brain. The brain thrives on compassionate communication with others and is starved without it. From the first few days of life to our last, relationships have a dramatic effect on our mental health. The social factor, in short, expands our longevity and boosts the brain's vitality. I describe the discovery of mirror neurons and spindle cells and suggest how to activate these neural systems to build relationships and shared empathy. Whereas negative relationships are toxic to the brain, many studies have shown that people who maintain positive social relationships live longer and develop the symptoms of dementia later.
The Sleep Factor
Most people do not know how important sleep is to the brain. Because sleep accounts for roughly one-third of our lives, a healthy sleep cycle can enhance memory and clarity of thought. But when the brain is deprived of sleep, it can fail to take advantage of those critical cognitive abilities. Researchers have shown that not only sleep deprivation but shallow sleep can impair the brain, especially the hippocampus (the part of the brain critical for memory) by increasing stress hormones such as cortisol. Sleep cycles change for mature adults who find it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. You'll read many suggestions for achieving a healthy night's sleep.
Moderating Your Stress
This chapter addresses the importance of focusing attention on the present moment while combining all the factors of the Brain Bible formula. Attention to the here and now better allows you to apply the factors and simultaneously decrease stress. A present focus is an antidote to the passive and superficial lack of focus endemic in contemporary society, which increases stress. The practice of moderating stress is critical for a sharp brain. Since there are always bumps on the road of life, flexible attention to the present moment increases your resiliency and allows you to embrace the rich complexity of life that is critical for sharpening the brain.
The Brain Bible Seven-Day Jump Start
Since many people wonder where to start, I offer some ideas about how you may want to structure in a seven-day jump start. By making incremental and progressively intensified steps to keep cultivating a healthy brain, you can live better longer!CHAPTER 2
Brain Research Breakthroughs
When I first met Beth, she appeared glum as she said, "I think I'm all used up." She went on to describe how she had built an identity around being a mother and a social worker. After I got to know her, it became evident that she was not just good but great in both roles. Her two sons had happy families of their own, and they came to visit her often because she was so warm and loving. In her capacity as a social worker she had risen through the ranks to become a director at Child Protective Services. Despite constant budget cuts to her department, she managed to stretch the shrinking resources while working hard to keep the morale of the staff high.
Beth, however, stated, "I guess being the glue for everyone means that it all came at a cost, with my glue cracking." She looked at me with tired eyes. "Have I done irreparable damage to my brain?"
We talked about the many things she could do to rekindle her vitality and boost the health of her brain for many years to come. Her face blossomed in a beautiful smile. "I was so afraid that I had hastened my own demise."
I told her, "It looks like you have been a fantastic caregiver for your family and your employees. It's time to reap some of the benefits of your caregiving yourself." I went on to describe how recent developments in psychology and neuroscience have made it clear that there is much a person can do to keep her brain healthy throughout life. Not only can she protect her brain from needless and preventable insult, she can engage in behaviors that have consistently been shown to be brain-healthy. Indeed, she can take good care of her brain while she ages and simultaneously enjoy a rich and satisfying life.
Building a Healthy Brain
There is good news and bad news for mature adults. The good news, which was particularly reassuring to Beth, is that the brain reaches its peak in middle adulthood and that people can continue to sharpen their brains and even grow new brain cells. The bad news is that these enhancements do not happen automatically. You must do certain things to optimize your brain's longevity. In fact, failing to engage in brain-healthy behaviors can make you more vulnerable to developing dementia. By your late middle years your brain is indeed at a crossroads. Recent studies indicate that this period is pivotal for the long-term health of the brain.
Though you can't roll back the clock and transform your mature brain into a 20-year-old brain, you can keep it healthy. You can slow down the aging process and take a brain-healthy turn at the crossroads to sharpen your brain instead of letting it grow dull. A strict "brain age" is a fiction, as no two brains are the same. We all vary in our experiences. Some people cultivate healthier brains than others by engaging in regular physical and mental exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and establishing robust social networks. Others are hard on their brains with very poor diets, no exercise (mental or physical), poor sleep habits, and social isolation. Apart from genetic vulnerabilities, the second group will most likely be more depressed or easily stressed and show signs of dementia earlier in their lives.
This book offers a broad-based formula that includes the key factors to keep your brain healthy as you age. Your brain has the potential to build on the gains of your earlier life and rewire brain areas that were neglected. Now is the time to revitalize your brain to continue to live a vibrant life.
The Good News about Mature Brains
Mature brains are dramatically different from younger brains. Though their reaction time is significantly lessened, there are several cognitive abilities that allow mature adults to outperform younger adults. For example, older adults do better on tests that include complex problem solving, vocabulary, spatial organization, and verbal memory. Think of it this way: your brain is more experienced. You have built up a library of knowledge from which to base judgments and decisions. Mature brains tend to be far denser in the number of connections between neurons, which means they are capable of greater complexity of thought. Instead of being like a young tree with a few branches, they have complex interlocking branches that make the accumulated knowledge possible.
Drawing on your library of knowledge allows you to outthink younger adults; you are better able to put all the information you have gathered than you were when you were younger. In contrast to adapting to new situations, in which younger adults have a significant edge, when you are faced with information that you already know, your brain can discern patterns and form logical conclusions much more efficiently than is possible for a young adult.
Younger adults use one hemisphere disproportionally more than they use both together. In contrast, bright older adults use the left and the right hemispheres together efficiently. Mature brains show a higher degree of what has been referred to as bilateralization. This is the tendency to use both sides of the brain together, providing you with the ability to analyze situations and see the larger context more efficiently. Bilateralization allows you to better understand the interdependence of the various aspects of a situation than you could when you were 20.
Let's take a closer look at what you gain from the enhanced coordination of the two hemispheres. Both hemispheres have different talents that can add up to greater brain efficiency when used together. The right hemisphere processes visual and spatial information, enabling you to grasp the big picture. It pays more attention to the context or the gist of a situation. The left hemisphere, in contrast, is adept at details, categories, and linearly arranged information such as language. Since the two hemispheres of mature brains work better together, one hemisphere does not dominate the other. This enables you to synthesize the talents of both hemispheres. Thus, you can more easily keep the big picture in mind (a right hemisphere talent) while resolving complicated detailed problems (a left hemisphere talent).
Another change occurring to the mature brain involves the enhanced ability to control emotions. On average, mature adults are less bothered if someone looks at them with a frown or scowl and take things in stride. They don't consider as many situations to be potential threats as they did when they were younger. This is the case partly because the amygdala, a structure deep within the temporal lobes (right above the ears), which is a principal part of your homeland security system, is much less reactive than it was when you were young.
There is also a change in neurochemistry that contributes to the general mellowing of older adults. A study performed by Dilip Jeste at the University of California looked at brain scans from 3,000 people and found that older people are less dependent on the neurotransmitter dopamine, making them less impulsive and controlled by emotion. In contrast to younger adults, who possess a significant edge in attention skills, mature adults respond less thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli and are more rational and wise in finding solutions to problems than are younger people.
The edge that mature adults possess in the control and balance of their emotions over younger adults makes them focus less on negative aspects of life, perhaps because they have already learned about potential dangers in the world. Mature adults, because they have learned many lessons about the world, have a wider reference and more wisdom. They tend to become less anxious, more focused, and in better control of their emotions as they age.
Another major change occurring to mature brains involves the so-called white matter, of which myelin is a part. Myelin coats the axons, the long extensions of neurons that send information out to other neurons in the same way that plastic covers the wires in an electrical cord to prevent it from shorting out. When axons are covered with myelin, the neurons fire more efficiently and thousands of times more quickly. Myelin is so critical to brain health that demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis can devastate a person's brain.
It was once thought that adolescence marked the peak and end of myelination, but it is now known that myelination peaks at around age 50 and in some cases at 60 in two critical areas of the brain: the frontal lobes (responsible for decision making and controlling the emotions) and the temporal lobes (involved in language and memory). After the peak in myelination older adults incur differing degrees of impairments in myelin as a result of a variety of genetic and self-care practices.
Healthy myelin depends on a number of factors, especially diet. Essential fatty acids and high-density cholesterol (HDL) account for a significant amount of the composition of myelin. Eating foods that promote healthy myelin is critical for the brain. Also, it is important to avoid foods that degrade myelin such as saturated fat, trans fatty acids, and simple carbohydrates such as sugar. In fact, consuming large amounts of simple carbohydrates can lead not only to type 2 diabetes but also to premature aging.
Excerpted from The Brain Bible by JOHN ARDEN. Copyright © 2014 John Arden. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
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