There are many factors that can lead to a discontented life. For most people I know, fear of getting old is a palpable one. Not only do we know that we can’t avoid the aging process, but we are left to experience clear and obvious signs of our deterioration.
In Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom, Henry Emmons and David Alter help. They provide a formidable guide to not just stave off the aging process but, in some cases, reverse it.
Emmons, a psychiatrist who integrates mind-body and natural therapies into his practice, and Alter, a psychotherapist with thirty years’ experience in neuroscience, health psychology, and clinical hypnosis, show us what we can do to try to slow that deterioration.
The authors begin by reminding us that the combining of “cutting edge advances in neuroscience with ageless healing practices” has been keeping humans alive for many years. The hallmark of an adaptive brain — one that improves with age — is response flexibility, they write, and many of the tips they offer involve conscious, deliberate practice. While Emmons and Alter don’t promise that we “will become the next Einstein,” they do help us improve the connectivity of our brain, which, they write, will increase our life’s vibrancy and vitality.
Movement, Emmons and Alter suggest, is key. By building activity into our daily routine, we can provide a “good stress” that acts like brain fertilizer, improving memory, happiness, and even the size of our brain. The authors suggest twenty minutes most days of the week, some weight bearing exercise, and “picking up the pace” every now and then.
There are three types of movement we should incorporate, they suggest, to get the most benefit: andante, which means “just move;” adagio, which refers to mindful movement like yoga; and allegro, or active and vigorous movement.
But with movement, we must also have rest. The authors describe sleep as the magic elixir that “cleans out the brain” and improves our ability to regulate emotions, consolidate new information (which is essential for learning), and even enhance creativity. If you are one of the millions of people who can’t sleep well, Emmons and Alter have some helpful, basic tips: go to bed only if you are sleepy, avoid ruminating on not sleeping, and consider some natural remedies like melatonin and amino acids.
Rounding out the more physical aspects of self-improvement is nutrition. “Three of the greatest threats to your brain come from excess glucose, metabolic stress, and inflammation,” the authors write. Excess sugar, we are told, can even shrink the brain’s size – especially the hippocampus. But as confusing as nutrition is, Emmons and Atler offer some simple and easy tips, such as eating mostly whole foods, eating a varied and plant-based diet, eating healthy fats, reducing sugars, adding probiotics, and minimizing toxins. They also discuss supplements.
Aside from the physical actions we can take, the authors write about how we can change the way we think. Three big areas they cover are creativity, flexibility, and optimism. They draw upon the experiences of their many patients to demonstrate how we can embrace uncertainty to boost creativity and learn to “seek what is novel, new, and unexplored.” In terms of flexibility, they encourage us to “ready ourselves to explore the unknown” and develop an insatiable appetite for learning. And optimism, they write, lets us persist in our efforts to generate a more positive future in spite of, or even because of, current obstacles and setbacks.
While that may all sound like a rather quixotic view of the world, it is backed it up with solid research and practical tips. For example, optimism, the authors write, depends on four things: imagining a future goal, ignoring or downplaying the long odds of achieving it, showing persistence by stubborn patience or focused hustle, and overestimating the pleasure of the reward that is the object or goal of the pursuit. Meaning, Emmons and Atler are not just spouting aphorisms, but are using studies to support their tips.
Finally, the book moves into how we relate to others: empathy, connection, and authenticity. “The greatest measure of an individual’s self-development,” the authors write, “is his or her social connection to others in the family, community, and wider society.”
By practicing open-minded curiosity, active listening, and transformational imagination (transforming our dim and prejudiced views of one another into a peaceful co-existence), we can build empathy and connection with those around us.
Becoming the authentic person we were meant to be is not, of course, a simple task. But Emmons shares his own personal experience to shed some light. He writes that he became so discontented with the medical model of practice, felt so conflicted about it, that he finally listened to his inner voice. He traded in his reliable income for the chance to create something closer to his heart.
The result is, in part, this well-researched and thought-provoking book. Along with Atler, Emmons makes the strong case that we can all create a more adaptive brain — and a better life as we age.
Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom
Touchstone, September 2015
Hardcover, 288 pages