S2E33. How To Keep Your Brain Young

I stumbled across a book referenced in an article I was reading and was intrigued by the description of the author: “Professor Kerryn Phelps AM, Australia’s most trusted GP.”

Interesting! A book about brain health by a general practitioner and not a neurologist or neuropsychologist? A consumer of research instead of a creator of research? And from Australia? Because of these anomalies, I wondered if her perspective would differ from everything else I’ve been reading written by Americans with more traditional backgrounds…so I read her book, How To Keep Your Brain Young which was published last September.

Some differences were immediately apparent, such as the spelling of words like ‘foetus’ and ‘coeliac disease.’ When citing research studies, she tends to reference where the work was done instead of the authors’ names, so you come across things like, ‘in a study done at the University of Sydney…’ She seemed to prefer citing work done in Australia, and that was layered on top of references to Australian epidemiological studies and policies of Australian public health agencies. All in all, it was refreshing to see the view from down under.

The most striking thing about this book, though, is the range of topics covered. Although any book about brain health will necessarily cover dementia-related topics, Professor Phelps goes above and beyond in cataloguing the wide variety of things that can affect one’s brain health over one’s lifetime. You might expect a cradle-to-grave approach, but she goes beyond that, not just to pre-natal concerns, but all the way to pre-conception factors that might affect the brain-in-waiting!

Her thoroughness is carried throughout the book with an attention to detail that could only be rooted in the curiosity of someone who found every fact about the brain to be enormously fascinating. She begins with a description of the various brain structures, their functions and the neurotransmitters that drive the system. I have to admit that if I was not already well-versed in those topics, I would have found it very difficult to follow. It’s not that she uses a lot of technical jargon, but that she presents the information in a rapid, unadorned format. ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ as Sergeant Joe Friday used to say. Her writing is unembellished. There are few anecdotes and personal reflections. There is no poetry in her prose. She writes like a GP speaks: ‘Here’s what the tests show and here’s what you can do about it. I’ve written you a prescription.’

Nonetheless, it’s riveting and breathtaking in its scope. There are short chapters about virtually all the things that can affect your brain in a lifetime, including alcohol, medications, chemotherapy, smoking, anesthesia, gluten, glucose, blood pressure, street drugs, menopause, stress, depression, your gut biome, stroke, brain injury and brain cancer. Factors that don’t merit their own chapters are covered in the chapter on dementia. Oddly, though, she doesn’t address air pollution, toxic chemicals or pesticides.

I thought the best line of the book came in her summary of the effect of using methamphetamines. After detailing all the different ways it kills neurons and affects brain function, she dryly remarks that ‘it really doesn’t have a lot going for it.’

After detailing what proper brain function looks like and inventorying all the things that can go wrong, she settles into a discussion of the things you can do to protect your most valuable organ throughout your lifespan, or as she puts it, ‘how to keep your brain young.’ There are chapters dedicated to cognitive challenge, exercise, diet, supplements, social connectedness, relationships, sleep and mind-body therapies. She also includes a chapter on the brain-enhancing properties of pets, which is something I hadn’t come across anywhere else.

Professor Phelps closes the book with a lifetime prescription for protecting your brain and preserving its performance. It comes down to avoiding brain injury, exercising, optimizing your diet, controlling your blood sugar, managing cholesterol, improving your gut health, controlling your blood pressure, building and maintaining social networks, sleeping soundly, stimulating your mind, taking care of your emotions, being cautious with prescribed medications, avoiding illicit drug use, not overusing alcohol, never smoking, and considering using supplements and herbs.

It seems like a lot until you realize that you’ve got a whole lifetime to figure it out. Obviously, the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be. Nonetheless, the research says that benefits will accrue no matter when you engage.

So, to answer my initial question, the view from down under is pretty much the same as it is from here in West Chester, PA!

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