How can we maintain our independence, autonomy, and abilities as we age? In his book “The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind,” psychiatrist and certified master psychopharmacologist Dr. Timothy R. Jennings writes about the health of our brains and recommends specific actions to protect them from deterioration in order to slow the aging process.
Writing “The Aging Brain” was personal for Jennings; he had watched his wife’s mother slowly being ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease. Yet the book is not a reflection but a reference, and one that has great scope. Since Jennings believes that life operates on laws of health and that the primary purpose of every organ system of the body is to serve the brain, he offers a comprehensive approach.
Understanding and living in harmony with the design parameters for health is essential for maintaining healthy brain functions. For example, tobacco smokers violate the laws of health and cannot escape the damaging results. If the lungs are damaged, their ability to provide oxygen and nutrients to the brain is diminished.
The first step, then, to better brain health is to do an inventory of your habits: Identify unhealthy practices, and then make changes to move toward a healthier lifestyle. Irrespective of your age, the brain is in a constant state of flux and changes based on the choices you make and the experiences you encounter.
Perhaps the most significant factor that impacts the brain is obesity. It increases oxidative damage to your body and accelerates aging. It isn’t just the total calories consumed that matters but also the types of foods consumed. Jennings favors plant-based diets high in fruits, nuts, veggies, and vitamins B, D, C, and E or Mediterranean diets high in omega-3 fish oils. Animal-based foods increase the bacteria that contribute to obesity, whereas plant-based foods that are high in fiber increase the bacteria that promote weight loss.
Even if obesity has not been successfully managed, don’t fall into the trap of believing that other choices don’t matter—they do! Jennings’s book has sections about other healthy lifestyle choices, such as walking daily, ensuring you get mental rest and relaxation, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet.
Jennings recommends avoiding substances that increase inflammation, such as tobacco, illegal drugs, and excessive alcohol. He quotes Dr. Andrew Weil to talk about detoxifying: “The best way to detoxify is to stop putting toxic things into the body and depend upon its own mechanism.”
As far as exercise, Jennings believes in the law of exertion; if you don’t use it, you lose it. That is, if you want something to be stronger, you must exercise it. He recommends moderate aerobic exercise five days per week or vigorous aerobic three days per week, strength training at least two days per week, and flexibility exercises two days per week. He tells readers to choose exercises that they find enjoyable, not stressful.
If exertion is helpful for good health, rest is essential. There are four physical requirements to life—air, water, food, and sleep—Jennings says in his absorbing chapter on sleep. The first three everyone instinctively knows, but it is surprising how many people don’t realize that sleep is a physical requirement and that alterations in normal sleep patterns always have negative, unavoidable health consequences.
Jennings also considers the impact of the mind on health and advocates lifelong learning: contemplating new ideas, developing new abilities, partaking in challenging activities such as puzzles, learning a new language, taking music or art lessons, taking a college class, and so on.
While stressing the positive, he also considers the effects of unremitting mental stress that contributes to burnout and increased inflammation in the body. Pessimistic attitudes about future events cause negative physical changes in our bodies that undermine health and increase the chances of early death. Thus, Jennings also favors forgiveness, compassion, beneficence, and the pursuit of truth through assessing evidence and reasoning.
Although the book is not an easy read and parts of it are quite technical, it offers valuable information for reference. As a help for readers, Jennings summarizes each chapter’s main points at its end, along with key action points the reader may want to try. The volume is well worth the price.
“The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind”
Timothy R. Jennings, MD
288 pages, paperback $16.99
Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher with 45 years’ experience teaching literature to children. She lives in Massachusetts. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at [email protected]