Skip to content
 

Dr. Sanjay Gupta Talks About Brain Health

The neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent chats about ways to keep your mind sharp

Sanjay Gupta

Jim Wright/AARP

Bob Edwards:

Responding an AARP Staying Sharp survey, nine out of 10 people agreed that brain health is important. But few said they know the ways to maintain or improve it.

Dr. Gupta:
 I think it's in large part, because the brain for a lot of people is sort of a black box.

<Music starts>

Dr. Gupta:
 I mean, it's encased by the skull, by this hard case of bone. We only really think of it in terms of its inputs, and outputs. People don't really think of the idea of being able to change their brain, or improve their brain.

You don’t think about the food that you eat and the movements you do and experiences you have as improving your brain health.

Bob Edwards: Today, we’ll explore how to keep our brains sharp with neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

He’ll discuss common myths about cognitive decline, what sorts of activities may help improve your brain health, and the importance of a good night’s rest.

We’ll also be discussing Dr. Gupta’s brand-new book on the topic, which just debuted at number one on Amazon’s bestseller list. It’s called “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age.”

That’s coming up next.

Hi, I’m Bob Edwards with An AARP Take on Today

Intro

Bob Edwards: For his book, Dr. Gupta gathered insights from top scientists around the world on how to improve the brain’s resilience against disease. He also learned from so-called ‘super-brained’ people who are in their 80s and 90s with no signs of slowing down.

He says one of his goals with “Keep Sharp” was to explore how people have learned to develop their brain as an older adult.

A major point of discussion in the book is brain decline. Dr. Gupta says forgetting where you’ve placed your keys is not a sign that you should worry. However, at the same time, cognitive decline is too often misunderstood and can be hard to diagnose.

Bob:

What are some symptoms of mental decline that readers might find surprising?

<Music>

Dr. Gupta:

If you're having decline overall, in some of these particular discrete functions of the brain, it could affect your overall reasoning, judgment, decision-making skills, in ways that may not even be noticeable to you, but as they start to accumulate, or other people start to notice things about you, you wouldn't actually describe your memory as being faulty, but you're just starting to behave differently. I think that's one of the biggest things. That's what makes it so challenging sometimes to even recognize that someone is starting to develop any kind of cognitive decline.

Bob Edwards: If you want to take an assessment on your mental performance right now, AARP’s Staying Sharp has one at Staying Sharp dot AARP dot org. It can give you a view into how you’re performing today and enable you to learn about strategies to help support brain health. Staying Sharp also has videos, recipes and other activities to help you take control of your brain health.

Bob:

In this third chapter, you discuss 12 destructive myths about brain health. Give us an example of one of these myths, and its origins, and tell us why it's so destructive to believe in.

Dr. Gupta:

 There are so many myths about the brain, I think one of them that sort of inspired me to write this book, is that the brain just goes through this process of wear and tear throughout your life, and eventually, no matter what you do, it just ages in a way that decreases your cognition, and your ability to be as sharp as you were younger. But I had this really remarkable experience.

Dr. Gupta:

I'm a neurosurgeon, so I operate on brains quite regularly. I had taken care of this guy who was in his early 90s, and I had taken care of him, because the most interesting story, he had been on the roof of his house, actually blowing leaves with a blower, he's 93 year old actually, and which is remarkable that he was doing that, but he fell, and he got injured, and he had a blood collection on top of his brain.

Dr. Gupta:

Right away you think, well, I mean, 93 years old, what shape is he in? Is this someone that should get an operation? Should he not get an operation? What does a family thing? All these types of things. And ultimately given how functional he was, we decided to go ahead, and operate on him. Before I took him back to the operating room, I was talking to him, and he was clearly affected by this blood collection, but he was an incredibly sort of sharp person who had full knowledge of all these things that were going on around him, had been on his phone actually following these elections in East Africa,

Dr. Gupta:

It was just very surprising. So, when I took out this blood collection, because we were worried that it would expand, and eventually start to really affect him, I got to look at his brain. I got to look at his brain, and what did I see? What I saw was a brain that looked very much like a brain of a 93 year old. It was shriveled, and it was sunken, and it looked very different than a person's brain in their twenties, or thirties.

Dr. Gupta:

The reason it affected me so much, the reason I remembered this so much was that, yes, of course his brain had aged. But his cognitive function had not. So the idea that one of the greatest myths is that you're going to just gradually, and progressively lose your cognition as you get older, I think is a very uninspiring, and destructive myth. And while it is true that your brain may age, I mean, it is tissue, is three, and a half pounds of tissue, but that ultimately the thing that we're most concerned about, our cognition doesn't have to age. So that's what I put at the top of the list, Bob.

Bob:

You discussed how getting a good night's rest is a huge step forward to a healthier brain. What do you think is preventing us from getting the rest we need these days?

Dr. Gupta:

We're all going a hundred miles an hour. We are not getting rest. We know that because there're all kinds of surveys done on this. We sleep on average in the developed world two fewer hours now we did a century ago. We've lost two hours of sleep across the board, and we weren't probably getting enough sleep even back then. So it has a lot to do with the society in which we live, and the demands put on us. But I think one of the biggest things that has even changed over the last few decades is the devices, and the number of screens that we're surrounded by.

Dr. Gupta:

The brain, and the way that the brain responds to light is all very evolutionary. You go in the darkness, and it's time to sleep. You got light on your face, and it's time to wake up. We have so much artificial sort of situations of both those regards that it's becomes harder, and harder to get the rest, or the sleep that we need anymore. So it's a huge problem, while at the same time we've discovered that true restorative sleep actually acts like a sort of wash cycle for the brain, where it can help actually clear away waste, and things like that, that we accumulate during the day. So sleep, and the evidence for sleep has never been better, and more important, and yet we're still getting less of it.

Bob:

Any tips on how to improve the quality of our sleep?

Dr. Gupta:

People know what to do here. That's the thing, one of the interesting things about being a doctor is that, most of the times when we're talking about good habits, it's not that we're teaching people something new, as much as we're reminding them of something that they already know. There's a few things. First of all, you just got to place an importance on it. I mean, you can get to the specifics, don't have caffeine after 2:00, don't try, and eat earlier than three hours before you're going to bed don't look at screens for an hour, or so before you go to sleep, and try, and do something meditative, and relaxing.

Dr. Gupta:

The bed, and the bedroom should be cool, and quiet, and dark, 60 to 67 degrees ends up being a really good temperature in terms of our body's own thermal regulators. But mostly it's placing a premium on sleep. I think we always think about sleeping, the first thing to go in our busy day, and not recognizing how much more productive we will be, and how much time we will gain back. If we place a premium on sleep now the night before.

Bob Edwards:

Over the past year, we’ve covered the numerous ways the pandemic is affecting our ability to connect with each other. That sense of isolation has a serious impact on everyone. We asked Dr. Gupta about physical isolation and mental decline, but if you want a more in-depth discussion on the topic, listen to episode one-hundred eight. We interviewed none other than Astronaut Scott Kelly, who discusses how he prepared to face physical isolation before his year-long stay in outer space.

If you’re looking for more resources on social isolation, visit Connect 2 Affect dot org. That’s Connect, the number 2, affect dot org.

Bob:

In ‘Keep Sharp’, you talk about the negative effects of physical isolation, and how that can unfortunately contribute to mental decline. What happens to the brain when experiencing prolonged isolation?

Dr. Gupta:

There've been all kinds of studies, looking at the effects of isolation on the brain, and the effects of loneliness on the brain. And they are two different things, first of all, because people can be incredibly lonely, even if they are surrounded by people, but often times people who are truly isolated are also lonely. So there's a correlation there. What these studies show, they actually were doing scans on people who have loneliness, either due to isolation, or otherwise.

Dr. Gupta:

And found that some of the same areas of the brain that light up when someone's experiencing physical pain were lighting up, when they were experiencing loneliness due to isolation. We are really social creatures, and we find that when we are being social, we tend to light up all these various areas of the brain, and in a much more reliable, and consistent way than for example, doing crossword puzzles. If you were trying to do something good for your brain, sitting down, and talking to a friend over happy hour would probably be a better bet than doing a crossword puzzle. It has that much of an impact overall on the brain's function, and its ability to function long-term.

Bob:

And I was just about to tell you about all the crossword positives I'm doing. Any other good ideas for brain exercise?

Dr. Gupta:

There's a ton of things that I evaluated when writing this book. In part, it was a selfish sort of journey, because I really did want to learn what was best for the brain. I will say two things, one is that, first of all, these are hard studies to do, right? If I were to say, "Give me the best evidence on what makes your brain healthier, or perform better," how do you really even do those types of studies, and how do you separate based on age, and demographic, and everything. If you go to areas around the world where people have very low rates of dementia, or they live very long lives, and stay sharp their entire lives, you start to see certain pictures emerge.

Dr. Gupta:

So as far as evidence goes, one of the best things we know we can do for the brain is actually physical exercise. I think about this, again for almost from an evolutionary standpoint. When you stop moving, you've said, "My time has come. I'm not moving much anymore." So movement however you do it ends, up being really protective to the brain.

Dr. Gupta:

If for no other reason, it's reminding the body, and the brain that, I'm still here, I'm still moving, I have no intention of slowing down. A body that stops moving tends to be a body that slows down all of its metabolic processes.

Dr. Gupta:

So if I had to put it together, at least for something specific, I would say one of the best ways to take care of your brain is to go for a good brisk walk with a close friend, and talk about your problems. Talk about your problems, unburden yourself in some way. That ends up being a really protective way for the brain to maintain its cognition.

Bob:

People have been reporting a variety of symptoms from the coronavirus, including some related to the brain. What do we know about how the virus can affect brain health?

Dr. Gupta:

We are still learning a lot about how this particular novel virus affects the brain. Some of it's been quite surprising, and I say that as a brain surgeon. We don't typically think of respiratory viruses affecting the brain. We don't think of a respiratory virus leading to an isolated loss of smell. We don't think about this type of respiratory virus leading to strokes, because of clots, but there's all these different ways that this virus does seem to affect the brain, smell, clotting, but also brain inflammation, which is leading to people having significant fatigue, headaches, and even stroke like symptoms without a particular stroke.

Dr. Gupta:

So this virus seems to be able to cross in certain areas, the blood brain barrier, and cause some of these destructive forces on the brain. We still don't know exactly how, or why it does it. It's unusual, but it's becoming increasingly clear, and it's also probably in part what's leading to what it's called these long hauler symptoms. People who may have had not even that serious, or even moderate symptoms, more mild symptoms that just never seem to go away. It could because of be of this persistent low grade inflammation at the base of the brain.

Bob:

Well, we thank you, Doc. Keep up the good work.

Dr. Gupta:

Thanks for your time, Bob. Really appreciate it.

Bob Edwards:

Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s new book ‘Keep Sharp: How to Build a Better Brain at Any Age’ is available for purchase now.

Once again, visit Staying Sharp dot AARP dot org to assess your risk for brain decline.

If you liked this episode, please let us know by emailing us at newspodcast at A-A-R-P dot org.

 

Thanks to our news team.

Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon

Production Assistants Brigid Lowney and Fernando Snellings

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, my co-hosts Wilma Consul and Mike Ellison.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Bob Edwards.

On today's episode, we welcome Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent, to discuss his new AARP-supported book Keep Sharp about ways to keep your mind sharp. He'll touch on topics like common myths about cognitive decline, activities to help improve brain health, and the importance of a good night’s rest.  

For more information:

Subscribe:  Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn

How to Listen and Subscribe to 'Take on Today' Podcast

iPhone or iPad

  1. Open the Apple Podcasts app, search for the show title and select it from the list of results.
  2. Once on the show page, click the "Subscribe" button to have new episodes sent to your phone or tablet for free.
  3. Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen.

Android Phone or Tablet

  1. Open the Google Play Music app, search for the show title and select it from the list of results.
  2. Once on the show page, click the "Subscribe" button to have new episodes sent to your phone or tablet for free.
  3. Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen.
  1. To play podcasts on your Amazon Echo smart speaker, ask the following: "Alexa, ask TuneIn to play Take on Today podcast" OR "Alexa, play Take on Today podcast on TuneIn"
  2. To play podcasts on your Google Home smart speaker, ask the following: "Hey Google, play Take on Today podcast"
     

Join the Discussion

0 | Add Yours

Please leave your comment below.

You must be logged in to leave a comment.