The Octogenarian: 7. Grocery Shopping

It was one of the high points of every week for him, driving into the village to go grocery shopping. Since he could have had all of his meals prepared by The Community, it gave him a feeling of being independent and it fit his self-image as one who bucked the system. He liked that feeling. And, then, of course, there was the simple fact that because they had opted out of the full meal plan, he needed to shop each week to keep himself and Sally fed. What’s more, he liked being in the supermarket and he liked walking the aisles, thinking about what he would cook that week, getting ideas, looking for the freshest produce and unblemished fruit. 

He enjoyed being there so much, in fact, that he had taken to walking up and down all the aisles—even those where he would never buy anything, like the baby foods section—just to prolong his stay.

Perhaps his biggest reason—and one he would never admit—was that it sent him down memory lane every time he went. So many thoughts, so many memories, so easily triggered by something as mundane as the label on a can of diced tomatoes.

He was old enough to remember when you didn’t buy milk at the grocery store at all, when it was delivered in glass bottles by the milkman. (That would be the same milkman that appeared as a central character in the first dirty jokes he heard in the schoolyard.) That was back when milk helped build strong bones and was good for you and came from cows. What a far cry from now when milk’s fat content, antibiotics and pesticide traces could contribute to a slow death. And definitely not like now when all the milk that was safe to drink came from plants.

He enjoyed reminiscing about the days when milk tasted so much better with Nestle’s instant chocolate. He had learned how to make it from the television commercial with Jimmy Nelson, Danny O’Day and Farfel. He and his sisters  would sing the jingle together: N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle’s makes the very best…choooooocolate! He could still hear Farfel’s mouth slamming shut at the end.

Oh, the power of early television advertising! He didn’t like Good ‘N Plenty, but he wanted to buy it just so he could shake the box like Choo Choo Charlie. He was no fan of  Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, either, but he ached to smack it and crack it.

As a child, he hadn’t been allowed to go to the supermarket with his parents because they needed all the room in the station wagon with the seats down to carry the groceries home. They clipped coupons from the newspaper and drove from one supermarket to the next to take advantage of the different weekly discounts. They bought extra when there was a big sale on ice cream or meat and kept it in the freezer that they bought just for that purpose. The idea of having a freezer was pretty radical at the time. His father told them that it was a good deal because it would pay for itself in a year, what with all the money they saved on food.

Wonder Bread helped build strong bodies in 12 ways, but his parents bought the store brand because it was cheaper.

He got to help carry the bags in (brown paper bags that would be folded and saved, to be used as covers for school books, if nothing else), but he wasn’t allowed to put things away. There was a special system that his parents had and he would only mess things up. But the anticipation from seeing all those bags full of goodies covering the kitchen counter and table ranked right up there with the first night of Chanukah.

He was old enough to remember when grocery stores became supermarkets by adding another eight aisles of non-food items. At that point, you could get almost anything you needed right there in that one store. It was the 8th wonder of the world long before Amazon was a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

He wasn’t so old that he remembered the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company stores. They were already being called  ‘A&P’ by the time he came along. But he did witness the birth of Pathmark Supermarkets and even owned stock at one point. 

He was old enough to have been caught up in the Swanson TV Dinner craze. He remembered the little folding tray tables that you would set them on in front of the couch in the den where the television was. He liked the ham but hated the peas and carrots. Lean Cuisine and Hungry Man long ago replaced Swanson.

Some of his old favorites were still around. You could still get Yodels and Twinkies, but neither had passed his lips in three generations.

He recalled buying freshly-baked lemon meringue pies as a special treat for his first wife. She was the one who taught him how to eat an artichoke without killing himself and how to soak the steamed hearts in butter. Funny…he couldn’t recall the last time he saw a fresh artichoke in the market.

Sally loved a nice baked potato and so he’d buy them individually wrapped in plastic. They were microwaveable in just 8 minutes. He’d only buy one or two at a time to make sure that they didn’t sprout before he got around to serving them. What a far cry from the twenty-pound bags his parents used to haul home and store in a dark stairwell behind the kitchen!

Standing in the middle of the cereal aisle, he chuckled to himself as he ran through the inventory of all the products that had been his favorites, on and off, over the years: Cheerios, Honey-Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Special K, Meuslix and Kashi (but not Wheaties or Grape Nuts), Maypo, Farina, Cream of Wheat, and Quaker Oats (but not Wheatina). Hell, as long as he was making a list, we might as well include Pablum! 

He had never been a fan of the hyper-sweet Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops or Count Chocula. For nearly 17 years now, he had rejected supermarket cereals altogether in favor of his own homemade granola.

Surveying the sea of brightly colored boxes that stretched out on either side of him, he wondered if civilization really needed this many cereals. Ignoring the evidence of his own mercurial tastes, he concluded probably not. Besides, 5 rows of boxes stretching down a 55-foot aisle made it really difficult for him to find the small box (not family size) of Kellogg’s (not Post’s) original (not extra crunchy) Raisin Bran for Sally. 

In stark contrast, going down the pet aisle made him sad. Week after week, month after month, it never seemed to get any better. Why was it that seeing Alpo, Purina and Pedigree products reminded him of the pain of losing all the pets he had loved with all his heart and soul over the course of his entire life? Why didn’t they remind him of the good times? 

He was old enough to remember when the supermarket used to be crowded in the morning. Now, you didn’t see anyone under 45. They all shopped on their phones with an enhanced AI app that knew when they were low on staples, placed the order, and arranged for delivery when they would be home. No walking aisles for them, no sir. No memories, either. And that was sad.

As a result of the child-bearing demographic staying home, there were no kids or toddlers in the stores, either. Alex liked that. He didn’t miss the tantrums thrown by the little imps when their parents refused them something. Good riddance!

This was also probably why the latest generation of shopping carts that had bar code scanners didn’t have the basket near the handle with leg holes where mothers could place their wee ones to keep them out of trouble. And, no, he didn’t remember if he had ever ridden in a kiddie seat like that.

There weren’t many people around his age there, either, mostly because they had given up driving which, in most cases, had been the wise thing to do. The majority of the older folks who were there were the ones who had never been able to master the technology that would allow them to shop from home. They tended to bag slowly and methodically, using a carefully designed system that would facilitate the transfer from bags to refrigerator and pantry once they got home. He prayed each week that he wouldn’t get stuck behind one of them in the lone check-out lane that still had a human cashier in charge. It’s not that he was on any kind of schedule or had to be somewhere, he had just become more impatient recently. He didn’t know why, but he was aware it was happening.

He assumed that his days of grocery shopping were numbered. He knew that at some point he would have to give up driving. He knew that at some point, he would become as slow-moving as his peers, and he didn’t want to inconvenience other people in that way. He knew that at some point, he wouldn’t be able to lift the bags and negotiate the transfer from car to pull-cart to kitchen counter top.

These are the kinds of things that Alex thought about as he perambulated down the supermarket aisles every Wednesday morning. It never got old. He knew it wouldn’t last forever and that sooner or later these weekly outings, too, would just be a fond remembrance. Sooner more likely than later. Until that time, though, he would enjoy his weekly strolls down memory lane and the feelings of accomplishment that welled up inside him from knowing that he was still an independent octogenarian.


S3E12. The Leafy Greens Rabbit Hole

I’m not one to shy away from going down rabbit holes and this week found me tumbling my way down to Wonderland once again.

It all started with a report I read of a study published in Neurology this month that found (upon autopsy) that people who most closely adhered to the Mediterranean Diet had far fewer harmful plaques and tangles in their brains than those who did not.

What was surprising about the result, though, was that almost all of the benefit was found to be associated with consumption of leafy greens. I don’t want to get this wrong, so here is the finding verbatim: “People who ate at least seven servings of leafy greens per week had brains that looked 19 years younger than the brains of people who ate greens once a week or never.”

The authors, in typical researcher understatement, suggested that the findings are “enough for people to consider adding more of these vegetables to their diet.” 

Duh! Ya think?

After reading that, I packed my bags for the rabbit hole!

First question: What are leafy greens?

A quick google search answered that pretty definitively: “Leafy greens include various types of lettuce (e.g., romaine, Bibb, butterhead, Boston, arugula, spring mix, red leaf, green leaf, etc.) as well as spinach, Swiss chard, watercress, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale.

Since I was headed down a rabbit hole, though, I asked which were the most beneficial in terms of nutrients. The ranking, from most to least, is: kale, microgreens, collard, spinach, cabbage, beet greens, watercress, romaine, Swiss chard, arugula, endive, bok choy and turnip greens. (Keep in mind that they are all good for you. This ranking is like seeding the Top 10 basketball teams in the country.)

I then got to thinking about the 7 servings part. That’s one serving per day. Since (1) I don’t consider leafy greens a breakfast food (and my breakfast granola is already a complete and completely filling meal) and (2) I don’t really eat a lunch, the math compels me to (3) get my one serving at dinner every night.

But what, I asked, is a serving of leafy greens?

Ladies and gentlemen…welcome to the leafy green rabbit hole!

Of all the options, spring mix with baby spinach is the one I most prefer. It frequently forms the base for a large salad with multi-colored peppers, red onions, mushrooms, avocado, tomatoes, salmon or anchovies, dulce and an olive oil dressing. (It’s also how I most often honor the research suggesting that brightly colored vegetables are better for you.)

But 7 nights a week? I don’t think so.

So exactly how much spring mix do I need to nibble to reach my daily quota?

Back to the google. Several reputable sites agreed that one serving was equal to 2 cups of loosely packed leafy greens.

‘Loosely packed,’ though, is not a clearly defined term, now, is it?

I tried putting spring mix into a measuring cup, but the act of grabbing the leaves and getting them into the cup inherently led to some amount of packing. When I poured it out into a bowl, it was definitely more than what I would consider a reasonably-sized serving, but I couldn’t see any way to pack it more loosely. 

Come to think of it now, isn’t ‘loosely packed’ pretty much an oxymoron?

Then it occurred to me that I could look at my spring mix’s package for guidance. I knew there would be a nutrition label on it that indicated serving size and how many servings there were in the container.

Are you ready for this?

The label said that there was 1 serving per container.

Are you kidding me???

The label also told me that the contents weighed 5 ounces or 142 grams. So back to the google I went once again to see how much a serving weighed. The answer was a little ambiguous: 60-90 grams, depending on the vegetable. Using the midpoint of 75 grams would suggest that there are really 2 servings in that package, not 1. 

Even if I went with that formula, though, it was still an impossible quota to meet.

It seemed that implementing the dormouse’s urging to  ‘feed your head’ was not as easy as it ought to be!

Deep from within the recesses of my early memory banks, though, an image surfaced of Archimedes dropping objects into his bathtub and discovering that they displaced an amount of water equal to their volume.

‘Eureka!’ I cried.

I’ll empty out the container of leafy greens and fill it with water using a measuring cup. That will tell me exactly how many 2-cup servings there are in the container.

I’ve kept you guessing long enough. Four. There are exactly four servings in a 5 ounce package of loosely packed leafy greens.

And that amount meets the eye test. It looks like a reasonably-sized side salad.

I can handle that. 

Needless to say, there are any number of ways to satisfy your leafy green requirement other than doing it all with spring mix. You can cook spinach, kale, mustard or collard greens, for example. But I’ll leave it up to you to figure out the serving size for each of those.  😀


S3E10. The Road Not Taken

We just returned from a 5-day trip to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, where we watched the UConn Women’s Basketball team play in the Big East Tournament. Spoiler alert: They won!

We love getting away on little trips like this (it’s only a 4-5 hour drive from home) and immersing ourselves in something totally different from our normal routines. Watching 6 basketball games in 3 days in an arena with 8,000 screaming fans definitely qualifies as different.

On this trip, though, I became acutely aware of just how different it really is and what I did and did not do to maintain my normal brain-healthy routines. 

Let’s start with waking up in the morning. I normally drink matcha green tea steeped with lion’s mane mushroom powder, turmeric, rosemary, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin and a little black pepper. Obviously, there’s no way I’m going to find that combination on the road, so I suppose the best I could do would be to ask for green tea. But I didn’t do that. I had coffee with half&half and sugar every morning. 

Shame on me! What is it about being away from home that makes me want to break all the rules? For reasons unknown, there is something very satisfying about doing that. I rationalize by telling myself that a couple of days off of my regimen won’t significantly jeopardize my brain health. Looking ahead to our next trip, though, I suppose there would be no harm in mixing together my powders at home, taking them with me and then making my own tea every morning.

The hotel had a decent breakfast buffet and I really enjoyed their granola (made with sugar), yogurt (sweetened) with a mixed berries sauce (sugar again) and some fresh fruit. This concoction had a distant relationship to my usual granola feast (kind of like mice and humans both being mammals) but it clearly wasn’t the same. Once again, there is nothing stopping me from packing a bag of my granola and using the buffet offerings to complement it to get a little closer approximation to my normal morning meal.

But it wasn’t just the granola. Breakfast pastries were also offered and I’m incapable of resisting them. Knowing full-well that they are processed foods loaded with sugar and trans fats didn’t stop me from sampling them all. At home, I can make sure we don’t have them in the house so I can’t be tempted, but on the road, I haven’t the will power to abstain.

My normal morning routine includes doing word puzzles and half an hour of BrainHQ training. I did the puzzles, but bailed out on the training which seemed like work. I suppose I saw myself as being on vacation and just didn’t want to do anything that required mental effort. 

I could have brought my recorder and practiced each day, but I didn’t. I doubt I would have practiced even if I had brought it, though, as doing so would have been completely incongruent with the whole mind set of the trip. The same went for listening to classical music for an hour each day. 

The hotel had a fitness center and a pool, so I brought my workout clothes and a bathing suit. Nope…that didn’t happen either. I could have found time to hit the treadmill, but I didn’t want to be tired when game time came around. I had my priorities!

Most restaurants had vegan and/or organic options, so I made some effort to stay on track with my eating: a veggie hoagie (or grinder as they say in New England), fish tacos and a turkey sandwich. I had no justification, though, for scarfing down the pizza and chicken wings and chocolate brownie. And I’d rather not go into what we ate at the service areas on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I try to read for an hour each night before bedtime and I could have since I download books and read them on my computer, but I was too keyed up after the games to do that. The truth is, I was only interested in checking out the box scores, watching highlights and seeing the post-game interviews with the UConn players and coach on YouTube.

Fortunately, the bed was comfortable and we slept well. It occurred to me afterwards, however, that I could have brought the diffuser and lavender oil as they wouldn’t have taken up much room in the suitcase. I just might do that when we go to South Carolina in 2 weeks for the NCAA Regional Finals.

So although I missed a number of opportunities, there was a brain-health upside to the trip. I was exposed to cognitive challenges galore, from navigating our way around the cavernous, architecturally-stunning Mohegan Sun complex to absorbing the sights, sounds and energy of the live college basketball experience, from the pep bands and spirit squads to the players battling on the floor. It was invigorating and I’ve got to believe it more than made up for the incremental brain-health losses I might have accrued from abandoning my regimen.

In hindsight, I really don’t feel any guilt about bailing out on my daily routine. I mean, it was a get-away and when you get away, the purpose is to get away from your routine, right?

The bottom line here is that I don’t regret taking the path I took…not one single bit!


S3E7. Rosemary, Baby!

When were you going to tell me?

And why is the brain health blogger apparently the last to know?

I’ve been researching this stuff for about two years now and not once can I recall an article extolling the praises of rosemary…and it’s not because my memory is failing me!

Last week, my step-son Chris tagged me on a meme he shared on Facebook that simply read: “Scientists discovered an herb that fights off dementia and enhances memory and focus…” Naturally, I bit, clicking on the link to see what it was referencing. 

I landed on a site claiming that rosemary could improve digestion, avert brain aging, protect from macular degeneration, prevent cancer, enhance memory and focus, and protect neurons from damage. 

Needless to say, I was skeptical, but then my niece Wendy, who is a doctor of naturopathic medicine, commented on Chris’ post saying that when she took her board exams, all of the applicants had sprigs of rosemary on their desks.

So I decided to follow-up on the brain health claims and, lo and behold, there is actually some there there!

The preponderance of research is on animals, so there is reason to hold one’s exuberance in check until more studies can be done on humans, but the animal record is pretty impressive.

In a review of the literature, it was found that rosemary’s effects were consistent across types of administration (eaten in food, drunk in tea, or inhaled in a diffusion) and the effects can be induced with small doses, similar to the amounts you use in cooking. That’s pretty impressive.

It has quite a few chemical compounds in it that are important for brain health, giving it antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective qualities.

It also influences at least 10 different chemical reactions that are important for memory formation and recall.

The human record, though, is thinner. One study showed that students performed better on memory tests when in a room with a rosemary diffusion. Another showed an increase in speed of recall (average age of participants was 75) after receiving a dose of rosemary extract. But these studies were performed more than a dozen years ago, and so one has to wonder why no further results have been reported in the last decade, even as the animal research continues apace. How does such a promising line of research just go dark?

I dug a little deeper and it appears that research on herbs is very difficult to do because it’s nearly impossible to guarantee the same chemical properties from one batch of plants to another. Everything from soil to sunlight to moisture to age of plant at harvest to parts of the plant used to the method of processing the leaves affects the final product. If you can’t standardize the treatment, then your results can’t be challenged or replicated. What’s more, you can’t get approval for and market the product as medicine if you can’t guarantee the batch you are selling has the same properties as the batch that was used in the research…and therein, apparently, lies the rub.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of waiting another decade for large-scale human studies to be conducted. There is some really old ‘research’ that suggests using rosemary might be good for your brain: the ancient Greeks wore it while taking exams to enhance recall and placed it under their pillows to reduce nightmares and better understand the meaning of their dreams. 

Paradoxically, one of the few recent human studies found that inhaling rosemary essential oil decreased sleepiness and increased alertness among night shift nurses. What do you think the ancient Greeks would say about that?

Eager to incorporate anything into my lifestyle that might give my brain a leg up in navigating the next 30 years, I immediately bought powdered rosemary to add to my daily tea infusion. I’ll add some to the spice mix next time I make granola, too.

But the biggest leap of faith I took was to buy an essential oil diffuser for the bedroom. Here’s my thinking: long-term memory formation takes place while you sleep and inhaling rosemary enhances recall, so maybe combining the two will super-charge the process. Makes sense, no?

I’ll be the first to admit that that’s more of a crap shoot than a scientific hypothesis. I don’t understand the chemistry of how rosemary affects one’s brain, so it’s just as likely to interfere with the memory formation process as it is to enhance it. I could easily argue that the stimulating effects that the nurses experienced will result in a lighter sleep for me with fewer hours of the deep sleep needed for memory consolidation.

I’m a betting man, though, and I decided to go with the Greeks on this one.  So I set up the diffuser in the bedroom, added 3 drops of rosemary essential oil to half a cup of water, turned it on, and settled in for a productive night’s slumber.


It usually takes me no time at all to fall asleep, but not that night. My mind refused to drift below the sleep line for what seemed like forever. Then when I did sleep, it felt shallow, like I was just an inch or two below the surface. 

I must have slept some because I had dreams, but they weren’t sharp or colorful. It was like watching them through gauze.

I woke up frequently, tossing and turning. And then I did the worst thing possible: I tried to write a summary in my head of this night’s experience for the blog!

Did I mention that my heart seemed to be beating a little faster than normal? Yeah, there was that, too.

So it appears I experienced the nurses’ arousal and anti-sleepiness effects instead of the Greeks’ insight into the meaning of my dreams effect. Bummer. 

Sally, on the other hand, reported a better than normal night’s sleep.

So I’ll give it another shot next week, just in case there was some extraneous factor that kept me awake during this first trial, but I’m not hopeful. The rosemary diffusion apparently had a stimulative effect on me and that’s not consistent with the kind of deep sleep your brain needs every night to stay healthy. If the second trial fails, I’ll take a shot at using it in the morning in the living room when I do my puzzles.

I’ll keep you posted.


S2E52. The 2022 ‘Journey Awards’

The end of the year is traditionally a time to compile ’10 Best’ and ‘Best and Worst’ lists, so I thought I’d take a crack at it with some of the best and worst brain health events of the year for each of the 5 pillars of brain health. I thought about calling the list the ‘MOTYs’ for ‘Mistakes of the Year’ awards, but that didn’t seem to leave much room for celebrating the good news, so I went with the ‘Journeys’ instead.

Here they are:

1. Cognitive Challenge

There was plenty of competition in this category: playing computerized games on BrainHQ, traveling to foreign lands, reading books, writing this blog, and learning to play the recorder. As stimulating as they all were, I’m going with learning to play the recorder as the most rewarding cognitive challenge pursuit of 2022. It’s there for me nearly every day and it’s a rush to be able to play a piece or hit notes that I wasn’t able to master a month before. Learning to play meaningful melodies from across my lifespan never gets old. All in all, a pretty nice experience for a guy whose musical aptitude probably falls in the bottom twenty-five percent!

2. Exercise

One of my favorite lifetime brain health pursuits became an unexpected challenge. I was barreling along during the first three months of the year, working out 5-6 days/week, gaining strength, feeling great and losing weight. Then in April we went out to Minneapolis for the NCAA Women’s Basketball finals and I came down with COVID, which knocked me for a loop. It left me with a weakness that persisted for nearly 6 months. Working out was hard and definitely not enjoyable and I never got back into it consistently. My workouts now, when I do them, are shorter and slower. The weights I lift are lighter. So exercise definitely gets the ‘worst performance in a brain health pillar’ Journey Award for 2022.

3. Sleep

There really was only one contender for this award: my month-long experiment to change my circadian rhythm and sleep pattern in preparation for our Mediterranean cruise. It led to quite novel experiences, like going to bed at 6pm and waking up at 2am, but I think it worked. Upon arriving in Greece, I was tired pretty much when I was supposed to be tired and woke up within an hour of when I was supposed to wake up. The results, though, were somewhat confounded by the fact that I didn’t sleep at all on the plane and spent a couple of days recovering from that sleep deprivation. So now that I’ve figured out the circadian rhythm thing, I’ll have to work a little harder on the sleeping-on-the-plane thing next time we travel abroad.

4. Social Engagement

Thank goodness for Sally! She sets my social calendar and keeps me engaged. Without her efforts, I would definitely meet criteria for ‘hermit.’ But I don’t feel as though I’m meeting my obligations here. I enjoy being out with people and I enjoy listening to the conversations, but I’m finding myself talking less, so much so that Sally has commented on it several times. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I’m not talking as much at home, either. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. My mind is going all the time, I can hear just fine, I don’t have any word-finding difficulties and I have no problem following conversations. It’s just that I don’t often feel the need to say anything. Isn’t that weird? Becoming more subdued and withdrawn are often listed as warning signs of an impending dementia and fall under the category of ‘personality changes,’ so there’s that. Come to think of it, I get frustrated and irritated more easily than I did a year ago, so maybe this is something to keep an eye on.

5. Diet

This is a no-brainer: the 2022 Journey Award for best brain health dietary contribution goes to granola! (See S2E50: Granola Revisited). On the other hand, there have been several notable lapses in my regimen. I gave up overnight fasting, not for any empirical reason, but just because I lost the will power to do so once I reached my weight loss target. And now Sally and I are treating ourselves to an ice cream sandwich nearly every night. Again, no reason to do that except for the sheer delight of indulging in a guilty pleasure. This year’s Journey Award, though, for the biggest diet disappointment, was my attempt to drink a small glass of red wine with dinner each night. I conducted a noble months-long search for a palatable, organic pinot noir, but alas, to no avail. As good as it was, I just didn’t like it. And to make matters worse, even nursing a 4-ounce ‘dose’ left me a little tipsy. I reviewed the recommendations on drinking red wine and the bottom line was if you don’t already drink, then don’t start. In my case, it appeared that the neuro-toxic effect of the alcohol was greater than the augmentation of resveratrol effect. Since I eat red grapes every morning in my granola and I’m not a fan of supplements, I dropped red wine from the menu. 

And that’s my brain health year-in-review best and worst list, the 2022 Journey Awards.

Thank you so much for reading the blog. I hope it’s been helpful, interesting and/or entertaining. If so, I’d appreciate it greatly if you’d recommend it to your friends and family at It might be a nice change for them from bingeing on Netflix.

Wishing you a happy and brain-healthy New Year!


S2E51. Cholesterol? Bah! Humbug!

What kind of a Scrooge blogs about cholesterol on Christmas Eve eve when he should be decking the halls, harking the herald angels and making spirits bright?

Uh…that would be me!

I didn’t plan it this way, it’s just that I had my annual physical last week and my cholesterol is high, so my primary care provider put me on a statin. Some holiday gift, eh?

I’m a bit befuddled by it all. In my late 50s, my cholesterol numbers were good, but of late, they’ve been hovering at the high end of the safe zone or a little above. I have no idea what changed.

About 2 years ago, I tried taking a statin and it worked. Shortly thereafter, though, I began my quest to lose 40 pounds and to eat a brain healthy diet, which includes foods to help control cholesterol. So I came off the medication and did the experiment to see if weight loss, exercise and diet could bring my numbers into line.

I’ve been eating all the right things for about 18 months now: almonds, olive oil, asparagus, beans, blueberries, tomatoes, avocados, cacao powder, eggplant, apples, and salmon. And then last year, I added oats, oat bran and oatmeal to my daily regimen. On the flip side, I don’t eat fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, or junk food, all of which can raise LDL.

I worked out religiously and lost 40 pounds.

I was pretty sure my behavior had earned me a spot on the lipid screen Santa’s “nice” list, but instead, I got coal in my stocking. 

Since it didn’t work, I did a post-mortem.

Getting COVID last April definitely threw a wrench into the works. It left me weaker and unable to do the intensity of workouts I had been doing up until then. To make matters worse, I went off my diet during our cruise last month. I’ve gained back 12 pounds.

I decided to face reality and accept the fact that I probably needed the medication, but there were still a few things that were confusing me, and I wanted some answers.

In spite of the overall bad news, there were two bright spots in my blood work. First, it appeared that my efforts had paid some dividends in terms of raising my good HDL cholesterol level. I had succeeded in raising it to 60 mg/dL, which is very good. Consequently, my LDL/HDL ratio was also an excellent 2.4. 

So I could make the case that the reason my total cholesterol had moved into the danger zone (219) was that my HDL had increased…which is a good thing. 

So why did I need medication?

I asked my PCP about it when we met and she explained that the American Heart Association developed a formula for predicting the likelihood of heart and vascular disease emerging within the next 10 years. It takes into account factors such as age, gender, smoking history, blood pressure and total cholesterol levels. Their guideline is that your risk factor should be below 7.5%

She typed my numbers into her computer and swiveled her display around to show me the results. My risk factor was at 16.7%.

I felt like I had just been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

That sealed the deal. I’m now taking a statin.

What made the decision easier was that I had checked out the research on statins before going for my check-up. For several years, there had been concern that taking a statin could have a side effect of reversible cognitive problems. On the other hand, there were studies suggesting it could provide protection against age-related cognitive decline. So which was it?

A recent study appears to have resolved the conflict: the negative side effect is more likely to appear in those under 45 while the protective benefits seem to accrue to those over 65. 

What a nice stocking stuffer!

So why does someone interested in brain health care so much about cholesterol anyway?

There are about 100,000 miles of blood vessels in your brain and their primary job is to provide oxygen and nourishment to each and every one of your 100 billion neurons and 1 trillion glial cells. So you want to do your very best to make certain that nothing impedes the ability of those arteries to deliver their precious cargo. Cholesterol is the grinch in this story that can gum up the works by sticking to arterial walls and restricting blood flow which, in turn, damages or kills cells.

So now you know what I know.

And on that note, I’ll close by wishing a Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  


S2E50. Granola Revisited

It’s astonishing what can happen to a bowl of granola over the course of a year!

In S1E47: A Granola Ritual, I described the results of my effort to make my own sugar-free granola. Here’s what it looked like then, oh so many breakfasts ago:

1 cup each of chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

½ cup each of chia and flax seeds

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin and ginger

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup olive oil

1 dried fig, chopped

1 prune, chopped

¼ apple, chopped

15 red grapes, halved

6 raspberries or blackberries

A handful of blueberries

Enough flax milk to fill the bowl

I know rituals aren’t supposed to change, but the apostate in me just couldn’t resist. Every time I read the results of a new study linking a different food to brain health, I just had to figure out a way to get it into my diet…and my granola bowl every morning was the easiest place to do it.

The first thing that happened was that my annual physical showed my cholesterol getting a little high, so I immediately added 2 cups of oats and a cup of oat bran to the recipe. (I also started adding oat milk to my nightly kefir cocktail.)  With the addition of oats, my morning mix now officially met the criteria for ‘granola.’

Next came cacao. Studies showed brain health benefits for cacao, but I couldn’t figure out how to ingest it without  adding a lot of sugar. Then it occurred to me that I could mix it into my granola where the prune and fig might provide the desired level of sweetness.

So I bought some cacao powder and put a few tablespoons in the mix. It turned out that it added a little sweetness on its own, so I added some more. Now I’m up to 8 tablespoons of cacao powder, which is enough to give the flax milk a little color when I stir it all together, and just a hint of chocolate flavor without turning it into Count Chocula or Cocoa Puffs.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t really tasting the spices in my recipe, so I increased the dosage to 1 tablespoon each of cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, and ginger, and I added a tablespoon of nutmeg to the mix. Having done so, there wasn’t any difference in taste that I could discern. A warning, however, is in order. One evening, for a snack, I tried eating just the mix with flax milk but without the fruits. It was god-awful! A ton of stevia made it palatable, but it isn’t anything I would ever do again.

So why add all these spices, you ask? Well, because each one has been linked to improved brain health. But you are only getting minute amounts in each bowlful, you say, so are you really getting any benefit from them? Good question! My hopes are buoyed by two pieces of data. First, there was a study out of India that showed eating curry twice or more each week was protective. And so I thought, “How much spice can that be?” Surely, my daily mini-dose (plus the additional mini-doses of these same spices that I get in my daily matcha green tea brew) must add up to a significant level. 

Secondly, studies show that, in supplements, massive doses of these things must be taken to generate a measurable effect. But other studies suggest that eating a brain-healthy diet that includes them on a regular basis seems to offer just as much protection. So, yes, I think I am benefitting from this approach.

Now in an experimenting mode, I started adding things that I had read about but hadn’t included because they didn’t tickle my gustatory fancy. But the experience of adding things without fouling the taste gave me courage. So I added a cup each of sunflower seeds and hemp hearts. They added new textures, which were interesting, but left the flavor intact.

Turning to the fruit section, I quickly discovered that I could substitute a date for a fig and that it was even sweeter. After going through a few bags of dates, though, I think I prefer the figs.

It was several months into the new year before it dawned on me that I didn’t have any strawberries in the bowl. I couldn’t fathom how that had happened, so I bought a quart and pulled out the 7 largest, dicing one each day and adding it to my bowl. (The rest of the berries go into my kefir, as do 3 bananas, when I make 2 quarts every week.)

At this point, my bowl was overflowing and I had to switch to a larger one!

I always wanted to add raisins, but couldn’t find unsweetened organic ones at my supermarket. But then one day it happened: there they were on the shelf! The same held true for dried cranberries, so I added a cup of both to the recipe, mixing them in after it had finished baking and cooled.

But something strange happened. Even though I store my granola in an air-tight glass container, the raisins and cranberries turned into little rocks, barely chewable and sticking to my teeth when I crunched into them. With deep regret, I dropped them from the recipe.  😦

And then came Thanksgiving and the arrival of fresh organic cranberries to the produce section. I tried adding a handful of them, halved, and, boy oh boy, were they tart! But a recent study had them outperforming cacao and so I thought it was worth it to keep them in. Unfortunately, I’m guessing that they will disappear after the holiday season.

And now for the piece-de-resistance: vitamin gummies!

Sally has a prescription for medical marijuana to help her sleep and she takes it in gummy form. But as we prepared for our trip to Greece in October, we learned that it’s illegal to bring marijuana—in any form—into the country. I came up with the idea of smuggling it in by mixing hers into a bottle of vitamin gummies. By the time the bottle arrived, though, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk, which meant that I now had 170 vitamin gummies that I couldn’t use. Or could I?

I was never a fan of taking vitamins even though they pretty much can’t hurt and they often help. I tried the gummies and they tasted fine, with a hint of citrus, and the texture was interestingly rubbery. When I read the label, it said to take 2 every day with food…and that is when it hit me: I could quarter them and add them to my granola in the morning. So I did…and it’s a hoot! I play this game where I try to identify all 8 pieces when I bite into them. So now I’m taking a daily vitamin and have added a bit of whimsy to my morning ritual.

Reflecting back on my granola’s evolution over the course of this past year, it occurred to me that Forrest Gump had it all wrong: life isn’t like a box of chocolates…it’s like a bowl of granola!

For the adventurous among you, here’s the current recipe:

1 cup each of chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds

2 cups oats

1 cup oat bran

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

1 cup sunflower seeds

1 cup hemp hearts

½ cup each of chia and flax seeds

8 tablespoons of unsweetened cacao powder

1 tablespoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and cumin

1 teaspoon vanilla

¾ cup olive oil

1 dried fig, chopped

1 prune, chopped

¼ apple, chopped

1 large strawberry, chopped

15 red grapes, halved

A handful of raspberries or blackberries

A handful of blueberries

A handful of cranberries, halved

2 gummy vitamins, quartered

Enough flax milk to fill the bowl

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then drizzle in the olive oil and vanilla and toss until the nuts are coated and the seeds stick to them. Spread the mixture out on a cookie sheet (no need for parchment since there is no sugar to stick to the bottom) and bake for 25 minutes at 300 degrees. Voila…granola!


S2E47. Guest Blogger: Sally!

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live with someone who is semi-obsessed with brain health? Although she didn’t sign up for that job when we re-connected after 41 years in 2011, Sally has found herself in just that position over the course of the past two years. Although skeptical of my latest career tangent, she has shown amazing flexibility and acceptance of the path I’ve led us down. So I asked her if she’d like to write an episode of what it’s like to ride shotgun with me. Here’s what she had to say:

“who knew that wayne’s changing his behavioral and mental approach to brain health would have so many real benefits for my health, too?  

a once “i’ll-never-eat-that” food option is now one of my favorite side dishes. i’d previously tried kale in various iterations but never found it palatable. but that was before wayne discovered the magic of massaging it with a little salt and olive oil. what a difference! 

and then there’s quinoa, for which my attitude had always been: “just not gonna happen.” but lo and behold, now i really enjoy the nutty flavor and look forward to it in many dishes.  

kefir? it took me years to eat yogurt and this was a step beyond that. when wayne told me what it was, my gut reaction was: “no way.” it had no appeal for me whatsoever. but then he made some and now i eagerly enjoy it every night as our after dinner drink.   

we are on this journey together. as you know, his change in habits goes well beyond food. we’ve lowered the night temperature in the apartment, constantly evaluate the air for impurities, and have adjusted the darkness in our bedroom so as to promote better sleep.    

his recent experiment to change his circadian rhythm was so funny to watch! he religiously went to bed an hour earlier than the night before until he was going to sleep at 6pm and waking up at 2am. goodness! i would just shake my head and laugh as he said good night when it was still light out. luckily, my reading didn’t bother him and his turning all the lights on at 2 am didn’t bother me (i was in the bedroom and he in the living room). the reviews are mixed as to whether it was a successful venture, but it proved to me that this man will try almost anything to better his health and mind and soul.  

i never envisioned these kinds of changes in lifestyle but it’s about damn time!  exercising and eating healthy foods just makes good sense. and i love this man so i know we will continue to explore how to be healthy for as many years as we have left to us.” ***

Thank you…and back at ya!

But regarding the question of how many years we have left to us, she’s known my thoughts about that since our first date after re-connecting. We were both 60 at the time, and I asked her what she was planning on doing for the next 60 years. That makes it 11 down and 49 to go! She’s done well adapting to quinoa and kale, but I don’t think she’s quite wrapped her head around the idea of celebrating our 120th birthdays together!

*** Note: No, those are not typos in Sally’s essay. She has eschewed the use of capital letters ever since reading e.e. cummings when she was fifteen….and that was something I had trouble wrapping my head around when I was a freshman at Brown and reading her letters from home!


S2E44. Greece!

We made it! We’ve spent the last several days island-hopping around Greece and as I write this we’re docking in Dubrovnik. I’ll be honest: I haven’t focused much (if at all) on brain health. I’ll assume you can understand why. Nonetheless, I’ll try to put together a few thoughts before heading out on our next excursion.

I felt I was prepared for the flight last Friday, having adjusted my sleeping and eating rhythms to accommodate 5 of the 7 hours we would cross during the flight. Serendipitously, Greece set its clocks back by one hour for daylight savings time the night we arrived, so I was gifted one more hour of transition time. What was left to absorb, then, was minimal: just 1 hour, or the equivalent of flying from Chicago to New York.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get much sleep on the plane. I used a neck pillow, lavender oil, loose-fitting clothes, and I ate a banana, but all to no avail. The engine noise, fellow passengers conversing loudly, and the impossible task of getting comfortable all conspired against me. Consequently, I was not a happy camper the next morning when we landed in Athens.

The good news, though, is that I don’t think I felt any effect of the time zone changes. Once I caught up on my sleep, I was fine.

Sally, on the other hand—having not made any effort at all to prepare for the time-shift—was…fine!

It seems that for both of us, the quality of the previous night’s sleep was far more impactful than the 7 time zones we had crossed.

Traveling is a brain-healthy activity because it presents a variety of unique cognitive challenges. Going on a cruise provides those opportunities in spades.

First off, there’s getting oriented on the ship. It took me several days to figure out how to find the important locations: our room, the different restaurants, and the theater. Oh, you could find your way around by reading the signage, but I wanted to be able to do it on my own.

First, I figured out that the various restaurants, although they were on different decks, were all at the back of the boat while the theater and the main lounge were at the front. These landmarks replaced north (theater) and south (restaurants) in my personal navigation system. Then I noticed that the even numbered rooms were ‘west’ and they got higher as you traveled from ‘north’ to ‘south.’ So as long as I could keep an image in my head of where the theater was (‘north’), I could figure out where anything else was whenever I emerged from an elevator.

Conversely, after only 2 days, Sally just knew which way to turn to get to where we were going.

Then there are the excursions with guides who present volumes of information along the way, on-board lectures, adjusting to at least a dozen different accents spoken by members of the crew, and absorbing the sights and vistas themselves. Add to that sampling new foods and meeting new people and you’ve created an intense synapse-stimulating environment.

On the other hand, maintaining a brain-healthy diet just ain’t gonna happen! I’ve been like a kid in the proverbial candy store pigging out at the buffets on sweets, pastries, carbs, meat and more alcohol than I’d consumed in a very long time. Leafy green vegetables? Nope. On the positive side, I am eating a boatload of fish and I’m making an effort to dose myself with fruits every morning at breakfast. I’m not at all looking forward to stepping on the scale when we get home.

We walk a lot on our daily excursions. Even though I don’t find myself breathing hard, I’ll assume that I’m getting my 30-minutes of cardio every day. There is a ¼-mile jogging track around the boat and a fitness center with treadmills and resistance machines, but I’m tired enough at the end of the day without pushing my limits with intentional exercise.

So I hope you’ll excuse me if I leave it at that for now and get back to the task of thoroughly enjoying this trip. I know…it’s a tough job…but somebody has to do it!


S2E24. Supplements? I Don’t Think So.

Last November, I posted that I wasn’t a fan of probiotic supplements (S1E44: Probiotics…really?)

Actually, I’m not a fan of supplements, period. There is no meaningful oversight by the FDA, you’re not guaranteed that you are getting the ingredients you think you are getting, and the research trail is pretty spotty for most of them, if there is a research trail at all. In fact, the World Health Organization has concluded that vitamins and supplements should not be prescribed to treat cognitive decline or dementia. Finally, I hate to take pills. So there’s that.

There is one important exception to my recalcitrance. I think it’s ok to take supplements if lab tests indicate a meaningful deficiency. If a doctor orders them for you and can recommend a reputable manufacturer, well, then, I guess I have no qualms with that.

As I continue to monitor the brain health literature, though, I’m always on the lookout for anything beneficial that I might be able to fit into my diet. My niece, Kay, has been helpful in that effort. She is a consumer par excellence and does her own research before telling me about a food or a product that might be of interest. A little while back, she told me about Lion’s Mane mushrooms and just this past week she asked if I knew anything about matcha tea. So I followed-up with both.

From what I can tell, Lion’s Mane has a decent empirical track record. Studies have used a wide variety of dosage levels, though, and there is no recommended level of daily intake. You can eat them, use them in powdered form to make tea and smoothies, or take a pill. 

I once ate them when I lived in Kennett Square (‘Mushroom Capital of the World’) where they were readily available…and I gagged on it. I’m sure I didn’t cook them correctly, but I’m not willing to give it another shot. And you already know how I feel about pills, so that left the powder form as my only viable option. Since I drink tea every morning, I decided to add ½ teaspoon (about 2 mg.) of the powder to my mug which is already laced with a ½ teaspoon mixture of turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and black pepper.

Matcha (which is sold in powder form) appears to be green tea on steroids. It has more of all the active ingredients of regular green tea and appears to give an additional boost above and beyond what you would otherwise get. Apparently, turning the entire leaf into a powder instead of steeping the leaves is what creates the potency. It is also cultivated a little differently from regular tea, adding to its mystique. There’s quite a ritual around serving it, as well, but the pageantry has no appeal for me.

The instructions on the label suggest adding ½ teaspoon of powder to 2 cups of hot—but not boiling—water and letting it steep. Looking for a boost, though, I upped that to 1 full teaspoon and, thankfully, it tasted just fine.

My morning tea, then, is brewed with: 1 teaspoon of matcha powder, ½ teaspoon of mixed spices, ½ teaspoon of Lion’s Mane powder and 2 cups of filtered water. (Yes…everything is organic.)

Now, if you had put all those powders into a pill and told me to take it every morning, I’d have told you to shove that pill where the sun don’t shine! But using the same powders to make tea seems perfectly acceptable to me. Why is that?

Maybe I’m just being a big old hypocrite, but I rationalize what I’m doing by saying that if I use it in cooking, then it’s not a supplement. And brewing tea is ‘cooking.’

So what do you think? Am I really taking a supplement? Do I need an intervention here to break through my denial?

Whatever it is I’m doing, I’m convinced that drinking 2 cups of this tea followed by my bowl of granola overflowing with a ton of fruit is about as brain-healthy a way to start each day as I can imagine!


S2E20. Brain-Healthy Menu Plan

I’ve written often about your diet’s effect on your brain’s health, but it occurred to me that I haven’t yet put all the pieces together to demonstrate that it’s possible to incorporate this kind of diet into a daily routine. I’ll try to do that now.

One of the things that has always bothered me about diet recommendations is the idea that you have to have X many servings of various foods every day or week. I just don’t have the patience to measure things out to see if I’ve got enough to meet the criteria for a ‘serving,’ nor do I possess the discipline to keep track of all of those servings to see if I’ve met the goal. 

Working that hard can take all the joy out of eating!

Instead, I’ve developed a practical approach (some would call it a rationalization!) toward eating. Here are the 3 key points:

1. You can only eat but so much in a day or a week, so eat when you’re hungry and eat things you like that fit your diet plan. I have faith that your body will figure out how to maximize the benefit from the selection you offer it as long as you provide it with a buffet that covers all the basic areas, like Omega3 fats, antioxidants, etc. A little of something good is better than none at all, and it’s probably good enough when you just can’t work the recommended volumes into your plan.

2. Except for #3 below, everything you put in your mouth should provide some nutrient that is protective of your brain.

3. There is no such thing as cheating. So what if you eat something you shouldn’t every so often? What’s the big deal? Maintaining brain health is a long-term project that plays out over decades. The more days I eat all the right things, the better off I am. But it’s not fatal if I have a piece of cake or a hamburger once in a while. It might set my project back a day or two, but that’s not so terrible and it’s more than offset by the soul-satisfying lift I get from eating something that’s taboo. Bottom line: your eating lifestyle should be guilt free!

Let me offer one disclaimer before showing you what I eat:

I’m not recommending that you adopt my diet. I’m just trying to demonstrate that a brain-healthy diet is do-able. Only you can decide what will work for you: what times of the day, how often, and what you like to eat. So I’m not going to give you a ‘meal plan,’ per se. It’s more like an outline to help get you started. 

The diet that emerged for me was the result of my researching brain health in order to write this blog. As I learned about foods that contained important nutrients and compounds, I tried to add them to my diet. Having eaten this way for nearly a year now, I don’t remember what foods provide what benefits, but I can tell you that everything I swallow has a purpose based on the research.

Finally, before showing you what I eat, it’s important to show you what I don’t eat: products with added sugars of any kind, rice, grains (except for oats), dairy (except for kefir), refined flour, bread, fried foods, white potatoes, beef and pork. It sounds pretty restrictive, but it’s actually not all that bad.

Oh yeah…I almost forgot…the goal is to use all organic ingredients.

Here’s what my diet looks like:

Morning Tea: I try to do a 14-hour overnight fast each day, so I stop eating at 7:30pm the night before and have breakfast at 9:30am the next morning. Since I wake up hungry, though, I have 2 cups of tea at around 8:00am to hold me over. Decaf green tea is preferred, but I don’t like the taste all that much, so I mix ½ tablespoon of green tea leaves with an equal amount of mint leaves and then add ½ teaspoon of mixed turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper.

Breakfast: It’s the same thing every day: homemade granola with fruit. And it never gets old! It’s now my favorite meal. I linger over and savor every mouthful. Here are the ingredients: oats, chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds, turmeric, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa, flaked coconut, flax seed, chia seed, oat bran, figs, prunes, apples, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and grapes, with flax milk.

(I added oats to the mix after I wrote ‘A Granola Ritual’ because I wanted help in lowering my LDL (bad) cholesterol.)

As you can see, I pack a ton of brain-healthy goodies into this one meal. 

Lunch: Well…not really. I get hungry between noon and 2:00pm, but I don’t prepare anything that could legitimately be called ‘lunch.’ More accurately, I nosh…usually standing up. I know, I know…I should sit down when I eat…but I’m hungry!

I hope this doesn’t gross you out, but my go-to noshes are pickled herring, homemade sauerkraut and seaweed salad. Hummus with vegetables, guacamole, and a few mouthfuls of dinner leftovers are also on the noshing menu. So are oranges and almonds.

Post-workout hydration: 1 pint pomegranate juice made with 1 part juice and 2 parts filtered water.

Dinner: One of the joys of adopting this food lifestyle is trying out new recipes…and being surprised that things taste as good as they do! Here is a list of the items that have become staples of my evening meals: salmon, chicken, shrimp, eggs, kale, quinoa, roasted vegetables (eggplant, acorn squash, sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, carrots), mackerel salad with celery, grapes and walnuts, spinach, asparagus, salad (spring mix, grape tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers (red, yellow, orange & green), mushrooms, anchovies, avocado, parsley, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice), red lentil pasta, and 4 ounces of organic pinot noir.

Although garlic isn’t mentioned above, it, too, is a staple. You’re not doing it right if you’re not mincing garlic every day!

Dessert: This is the same every night: a half cup of homemade banana-strawberry kefir with a quarter cup of oat milk, a few dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg, and some stevia to make it sweet enough to pass as a dessert.

Bon appetit!


S2E17. Backsliding

The last 6 weeks have not been kind to the brain-healthy lifestyle to which I aspire. 

During the months that I was trying to lose weight, it seemed easy to establish new habits and maintain them. My motivation was clear and there was positive reinforcement when I weighed myself each morning. There was the added excitement of learning new things and implementing them as I went along. That went for food, sleep, exercise and learning to play the recorder. They were heady times, indeed!

There was a comfort in the routine that emerged, from my morning granola ritual to getting into bed every night at 10:30pm.  Every hour of my day seemed purposeful and, more importantly, healthy. 

All that began to change, though, after I reached my weight loss goal. I had to figure out how to stop losing weight. (Nice problem to have, eh?) I thought that just exercising a little less (i.e., burning fewer calories each day) might take care of it, but to my surprise, it didn’t. 

Although it wasn’t my intention, I stopped exercising altogether, which is obviously not part of any brain health plan. It began on the 3 extended weekends we were traveling to go to UConn women’s basketball games. Although all of our hotels had fitness centers where I could have worked out, I just didn’t feel compelled to use them. It was as if I were on vacation and exercising would have been akin to bringing my job with me. Strange, right?

Around the same time, I noticed that my body was starting to complain about working out. I was having fantasies about running 5k races again and trying to regain what little speed I had 5 years ago. It wasn’t long after I began increasing the intensity of my workouts that I tweaked something in my left hip. Then I noticed that there were a couple of spots in my shoulder and back that resented my weight workouts.

I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and that it would be smart, not brave, if I took a week or two off and let my body heal.

That was the plan I was implementing when COVID knocked me for a loop and kept me from working out for another two weeks.

But it wasn’t just about exercising. I went off my brain-healthy diet, too. 

Since we were traveling, we ate out all the time. For unknown reasons, I felt that this gave me license to eat anything. And I did: corned beef, bread with butter, cheese danish, deep-fried walleye, bratwurst, bacon, stadium pizza, french fries, coffee with half&half and sugar, ice cream…all the banned food groups found their way down my gullet.

It would have been easy to eat much more healthily as just about all the restaurants had vegan items on the menu. But when I saw them, a wave of ‘I can make that at home’ would sweep over me and I would move on to the taboo side of the menu. It wasn’t pretty. And it didn’t feel good, either.

Our sleep hygiene went out the window, as well. Instead of getting in bed at 10:30pm, we’d stay up as long as we needed to relax after the excitement of the basketball games. We’d get up whenever we got up. Intermittent overnight fasting went by the wayside, too, as did chilling the rooms down to the high 60s before bedtime because we didn’t have our heated sheets to jump into when the time came.

It’s not easy being brain-healthy on the road!

But now we’re home and healthy and I’m getting back in the groove. This week I made granola, sauerkraut and kefir and I’ve worked them all back into my diet. I faltered again, though, when we went out for dinner and I had a hamburger, of all things. But I’m doing better. Honest!

I had to start from ground zero with exercising by walking on the treadmill for half an hour. I was actually sore the day after my first workout! We’ve restored sleep hygiene to our life, and that’s a good thing.

We’ve got more trips planned in the months ahead and so I’m going to have to steel myself to maintain brain-health discipline while on the road. I don’t think my backsliding hurt my brain, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t help it, either. My sense is that I lost about a month in the long-term project of cleaning up whatever toxic waste sites that have amassed during my first 70 years. What I need to do going forward is to find a way to treat myself occasionally without running amok.

That’s probably easier said than done!


S2E13. Your Brain On Red Wine

I’ve always felt inadequate around wine drinkers. They ooze with sophistication as they immerse themselves in the complex flavors and aromas of the pampered liquid. They seem to possess a breeding, class and erudition that I lack.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to develop a taste for wine. I have.

Like most college students experimenting with pot, I tried to get into drinking wine to go along with it. Back then, you started with the fruit-punchy Bali Hai and worked your way up to Spanada and Mateus, avoiding Thunderbird and Ripple which were reserved for the old winos in the park. Then you graduated to real wine. It was part of your education.

But I flunked that course. For me, a sip of wine meant explosions of noxious tastes around the edges of my tongue. If my taste buds could have surrendered to stop the assault, they would have. And people thought this stuff was good?

Over the decades, I periodically made attempts to learn how to drink and, more importantly, like wine. I attended tastings and could swirl and sniff with the best of them, but the assault on my tongue continued. Oh, once in a while I came across something that was tolerable. And there was that one time when a friend (and wine connoisseur) sprung for a $150 bottle that was actually good. Alas…the experience was never to be repeated!

Fast forward to this past year when I discovered that drinking red wine is part of the Mediterranean Diet and, drunk in moderation, can reduce your risk of dementia. I was able to incorporate just about every other brain-healthy recommendation I came across into my diet, but not that one. One article suggested that if you don’t like wine, you can substitute 5 ounces of pomegranate juice, and so that’s the path I took, mixing the juice with 10 ounces of water and drinking it for my post-workout, cool-down hydration.

But that left me feeling somehow inadequate, as if I weren’t really implementing the plan. I’m supposed to be drinking wine, so I decided to give it another try.

I started with a google search for which red wine provided the most brain benefit and learned that it was pinot noir: “This is the healthiest red wine due to its high concentration of resveratrol, an antioxidant compound that lowers bad cholesterol and high blood pressure. Some studies also suggest that it can improve brain health, kill cancer cells, and increase insulin sensitivity.”

The recommendation comes with an asterisk, though. Let’s not forget that red wine is about 12% alcohol…and alcohol is very bad for your brain. The suggestion, then, is that you limit your intake to 1 glass (5 ounces) daily.

That seemed do-able at first, but it turns out that it’s really problematic for me. You see, I’m a cheap drunk (always have been!) and it doesn’t take much at all to get me tipsy. The first time I ever got buzzed was at the end of my freshman year in high school and all I had was half a can of Colt45 Malt Liquor!

So the 5 ounce guideline might be ok for most people, but I’ve got to believe that you need to stay on the sober side of tipsy if you want to get the resveratrol benefits without getting slammed by a bigger alcohol effect. 

Overcoming my inadequacy was not going to be easy!

I started my quest by ordering the house pinot noir whenever we went out for dinner. No, I didn’t come across anything I liked and, yes, I got buzzed on one glass.  😦

Anybody know how many ounces of wine restaurants serve in a glass of wine? Whatever it is, it’s too much for me.

Next, I asked my sister-in-law Phoebe (who, among other things, is the family expert on fine wines) for some recommendations. The first bottle I tried wasn’t bad…but it also wasn’t something I would look forward to drinking every night. I just opened the second bottle last night and it’s a little bit better, so I’m going in the right direction.

I need to play with the dosing a little more, too. I measured out 5 ounces, sipped it slowly through dinner, but could still feel the alcohol. I’ll drop it down to 4 ounces tomorrow night and see what happens, and then maybe start sipping an hour before dinner time to spread out the alcohol’s effect. 

I think I’ll ask Phoebe for another suggestion, too, as I’m encouraged enough to think there might be something out there I will enjoy. 

Overcoming my lifetime wine inadequacy could actually be within reach!


S2E12. When Your Fact-Checker Doesn’t

We know that the prefrontal cortex is one of the areas most vulnerable to atrophy as we age and along with that comes problems with executive functions. That’s a big deal.

Executive functions include things like making plans, implementing strategies, following directions, monitoring progress and sustaining attention. It’s that ‘monitoring progress’ function I want to zoom in on today.

We constantly monitor ourselves to make sure we do things correctly. Is it ½ or ¼ teaspoon of turmeric in the recipe? Did I already put it in? For the most part, it’s an effortless process that keeps us moving in the direction we want to go, no matter what the task. We constantly monitor our actions to make sure that everything is ok. In essence, it’s our internal fact-checker.

Imagine, then, what it would be like if your fact-checker stopped working. You wouldn’t realize that you are putting the crackers in the freezer instead of the pantry where they belong, or that your doctor’s appointment is next week, not today.

I recently had two episodes where my fact-checker failed me.

The first came when I was preparing to drink my morning tea. My routine is to steep it (equal parts of mint and green tea leaves) the night before in a 1-pint pyrex measuring cup and then refrigerate it overnight.

(I suppose a little background would be helpful here. When I gave up drinking coffee with half & half and sugar about 10 months ago, I tried to switch to green tea because of its brain health effects. I didn’t like the taste, though, so I tried mixing it with mint tea leaves. That was better, but I was still craving sweetness. It occurred to me that it might taste better cold and so I tried refrigerating it overnight. That worked! Finally, to pump up the brain health benefits, I started adding ½ teaspoon of a combination of equal parts turmeric, ginger, cumin and cinnamon with a little black pepper. Delish!)

Back to that fact-checking failure…

While getting my tea ready, I also brew Sally’s coffee. She continues to use sugar and half & half, and so not only do I put my mug out on the counter, but I put out her mug, the half & half container and the sugar bowl, as well.

As I do every day, I placed the sieve across the rim of my mug and poured the cold tea into it. But something wasn’t right. I had only poured about half the liquid when I noticed that the mug was full. How could that be? My mug holds two cups and I steep a little less than that in my measuring cup. It was impossible for it to be full with only about 1 cup of tea in it. 

What the…???

When I stepped away from the counter to think about what might have happened, I immediately saw what the problem was. Instead of placing the sieve across the rim of my mug, I had placed it across the rim of the sugar bowl which had been half-full of sugar at the time. That is why it only took 1 cup of tea to fill it to the top.

Oh lord!

The second time my fact-checker failed me was after working out in our apartment building’s fitness center. My habit is to burn a few extra calories by walking up the three flights of stairs to the 4th floor instead of taking the elevator, which is what I did on this particular day.

Up the stairwell I went, exiting through the doorway to the hall, and making the left turn to get to our apartment which is just a few yards away. As I did so, I noticed on the right-hand wall a pair of large double doors with a sign that announced: Telecom Room.

“Huh,” I thought to myself, “I never noticed that before.”

I continued on down the hall to my apartment and inserted my key into the lock, but it didn’t open.

What the…?

That was when I realized that our grape vine peace sign wreath wasn’t hanging on the door…and that I was standing in front of apartment 341 instead of 441…and that I had exited the stairwell on the 3rd floor instead of the 4th!

Oy vey!

I could explain away both of these episodes. It would be easy to attribute my fact-checking error in the stairwell to being exhausted after a hard workout. I could argue that placing the sieve on the sugar bowl was the result of my still being half asleep early in the morning.

But I’m not going to explain them away. It’s true that in neither case was I at the top of my game nor was I hitting on all cylinders. But how you perform when you are not at your best can offer a glimpse of what is lurking below the surface. Although these might be isolated and infrequent incidents now, in another couple of years, with additional age-related prefrontal cortex atrophy, I might very well see a further decline in executive functioning and more fact-checking failures like these.

As always, it’s something to keep an eye on.


S1E50. An Early Present

I can’t recall ever being this eager (and anxious) about my annual physical and blood tests, but this year is different. My last check-up was in June, shortly after I began changing my diet and exercising on a regular basis. My blood sugar (A1C) was hovering around pre-diabetic levels, I was taking medicine (a statin) to lower my cholesterol, I was overweight at 180 pounds and I knew I had to do something about it. And so I did.

My expectations were pretty high this time around. I took myself off the statin about a month into the new regime. That was a pretty risky bet on my part because the numbers showed it was clearly doing a great job, with my cholesterol coming in lower than ever before. But I wanted to test the theory that I could control it with diet and exercise without exposing myself to potential side effects of a statin. I had worked into my diet pretty much every food identified as raising HDL (good cholesterol) and lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) and I was exercising an average of 60 minutes per day, 6 days per week. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I had lost a shit-ton of weight!

The first thing I did in my new diet was to eliminate all added sugars. No more coffee with 2 teaspoons of sugar in the morning for me; I switched to tea. I carefully read labels on everything I bought and rejected anything with added sugar. By the time I finished, there were only 2 items I was eating with added sugar: herring in wine sauce and seaweed salad, but I figured the benefits they provided far outweighed the costs of ingesting the trace amounts of sugar I was getting in the quantities I was eating. When I did need to sweeten something, I used stevia, but that happened infrequently because I soon discovered that the natural sugars in the foods I was eating satisfied any cravings I had for sweets.

I also eliminated all refined flours which are quickly converted to sugar in your bloodstream. I was convinced that my glucose and A1C numbers would show significant improvement.

All these dietary changes did not come without a modicum of anxiety. Was it possible that I wasn’t getting enough of some essential vitamins or nutrients? I had no idea, so I was looking forward to seeing if things like my calcium and protein levels were holding up.

I had my physical last week and the results were good. My blood pressure was 116/64, my pulse was 57, my BMI (body-mass index) was 22.8 (down from the overweight range and squarely planted in the ‘normal’ zone), and my oxygen saturation level was 99%. I don’t recall ever having a resting heart rate below 60 beats/minute, and that oxygen reading is as good as it gets (also a personal best for me). I took all this to mean that my exercise program was working. In terms of brain health, it meant I was getting plenty of oxygen and my heart was supplying it with ease. I could scratch high blood pressure, anoxia and obesity/belly fat off my ‘eliminating dementia risk factors’ to-do list.

The results of my blood work came in on Wednesday. Logging in to my account and clicking through to the report felt like opening a present on Christmas morning!

I made a beeline for the glucose and A1C page…and wasn’t disappointed. My sugar numbers showed a dramatic drop, so much so that I had exited the pre-diabetic zone and entered the normal range for the first time in several years. The diet was working! 

Next I checked my cholesterol numbers. The good news was that they were all in the normal range, albeit at the high end. I was disappointed, though, to see a noticeable spike in my LDL without the medication. My HDL showed a substantial rise, too, which is a good thing. I was a bit befuddled, to say the least.

I did a little googling and found that the more meaningful metric is the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL, in which higher HDL generates a lower ratio and a lower ratio is better for you. Mine was not that much different from the one I recorded when I was taking the statin, and better than prior years’ readings. So something good was apparently coming from my lifestyle changes. Nonetheless, I decided right then and there to add oats back into my granola to try to knock down that LDL number.

I scratched off my list diabetes and high cholesterol as dementia risk factors.  😀

Finally, I looked at a variety of other indicators to see if I was lacking in anything. Potassium, protein and calcium were all fine. So were all the other readings, but to be honest, I have no idea what they measure. Bottom line: I’m not depriving myself of anything important.

The icing on the cake, though, arrived yesterday when my doctor followed up with this message:

“Hello Wayne,

I received your lab results…Overall, your labs are good…Your cholesterol and A1C were all within normal range…No indication to initiate any medications at this time…Keep up the great work!”

What a nice present.

Merry Christmas, everyone! 


S1E49. Into The Homestretch

I had to reach deep into the back of the closet to snare the clothes bag that held my rarely-worn sport jackets and dress pants. I bought them shortly after moving in with Sally ten years ago because I needed something to wear for her niece’s wedding. I weighed 145 at the time.

Last month, while packing to attend the wedding of a friend’s daughter in North Carolina, I thought I might wear something from that bag, and I also thought that since I had lost 31 pounds and now weighed 155, they might fit.


The jackets fit fine, but it wasn’t even close when it came to buttoning the pants. The label said they were a 34″ inch waist, but if that was true, then I had a 37″ belly!

(It befuddled me because Sally had recently bought me some casual slacks (with elastic waists) that fit perfectly…and they were 34s. It’s a mystery I’ll have to solve another day.)***

Bottom line, though, was that I couldn’t wear those pants…and that pissed me off enough to motivate me to lose whatever weight necessary to get into them again…and to re-gain my boyish figure from when I was 60 and courting Sally.  😀

At that point, I had been dieting and exercising for six months and losing weight slowly but steadily. My weight had plateaued and so I needed to change something if I was going to drop another 10 pounds.

I couldn’t really eat less because I wasn’t eating all that much to start with. It’s not like I could give up Twinkies and brownies because I wasn’t eating anything with sugar or bad fats in it. And everything I was eating had a role to play in maintaining brain health, so there was nothing I felt comfortable cutting.

I was already using intermittent fasting as a weight-loss tool, so I couldn’t add that to my routine.

Since restricting caloric intake and intermittent fasting were not options, exercising more was the only path left open to me, so that’s what I did.

I had been jogging 11 miles/week and so I increased that to 21. 

I also added a set of exercises for my abdominals (a variety of crunches and planks). I figured that tightening up those muscles might pull my gut in without my having to hold my breath, and that could be worth a couple of inches right there. Make no mistake about it: it’s not that I covet 6-pack abs (which, by the way, I NEVER had). I just want to be comfortable in those pants.

Finally, I increased the weight on my strength training workouts in order to try to build a little more muscle mass. Muscles don’t just burn calories when you use them; they burn calories while resting, too, and that’s helpful. 

The science behind this is fascinating. It appears that your body will try to maintain a metabolism that fits your caloric intake while ensuring that you have enough stored fat to survive a period of food scarcity. 

You can see how this would have been adaptive during our specie’s hunter-gatherer millennia, but it’s a real pain in the ass today. When you burn off too much stored fat, your autopilot lowers your resting metabolism to conserve what’s left. That was the cause of the plateau I had hit at 155. Even though I was exercising to burn more calories, my resting metabolism slowed down to offset that, giving me a zero net change in weight.

By amping up my exercise routine and keeping my caloric intake constant, I would start to lose weight again. However, I only had but so much time to lose those 10 pounds before my metabolism adjusted once more. The race was on!

In the last 3 weeks, I’ve dropped another 5 pounds. I’m now in the homestretch: 36 pounds lost, 5 to go. The finish line is in sight, sometime around the middle of January.

Just for the hell of it, I tried those pants on again and…miracle of miracles…they fit just fine! So now I have clothes to wear for dressy occasions AND I’ve eliminated the belly fat risk factor for dementia.

*** It’s another day and I’ve solved the mystery! When I woke up yesterday morning, I recalled that those dress pants, although having a 34″ waist off-the-rack, had been custom tailored to fit my 32″ waist of 10 years ago. My new casual slacks, on the other hand, have a 34″ waist with the capacity to expand out to accommodate what was my 35″ waist in November. Voila! There’s the 3″ difference between the two pairs of pants and my (at the time) 35″ waist.


S1E47. A Granola Ritual

Breakfast has become my favorite time of day since I started making my own granola. I traveled that path because I couldn’t find any granola in stores or online that didn’t have added sweeteners (I’m pretty fussy here as I don’t even accept honey or maple syrup as ‘good’ sugar).

A quick google search told me that it was easy to make and that you could customize it to suit your taste. Here’s what I wound up with:

1 cup each of chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

½ cup each of chia and flax seeds

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin and ginger

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup olive oil

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then drizzle in the olive oil and vanilla and toss until the nuts are coated and the seeds stick to them. Spread the mixture out on a cookie sheet (no need for parchment since there is no sugar to stick to the bottom) and bake for 25 minutes at 300 degrees. Voila…granola!

(Disclaimer: There is nothing magical about this recipe other than every ingredient providing some nutrient that is protective of brain health. Feel free to add rolled oats, as every other granola recipe includes them.*** I leave them out because I’m on a pretty extreme diet that eliminates all grains, but you don’t have to do that. There’s nothing wrong with adding sunflower or pumpkin seeds, either, but they’re just not my cup of tea.)

What’s with the spices you say? To be honest, I don’t think I can taste them at all, except maybe for the cinnamon. The other three are all listed as top spices for fostering brain health. By adding them to the granola, I guarantee myself a small daily dose.

The ritual part comes when I prepare breakfast each morning, I start with ½ cup of granola (at this rate, the above recipe lasts for about 3 weeks) and then add dried and fresh fruit. Once again, everything I add is brain-healthy and the fruits provide plenty of sweetness:

1 dried fig, chopped

1 prune, chopped

¼ apple, chopped

15 red grapes, halved

6 raspberries or blackberries

A handful of blueberries

Enough flax milk to fill the bowl

(Disclaimer #2: There’s nothing magical about these proportions, either. Why 6 raspberries? I’ll be damned if I know!)

There is just something about chopping a sun-dried fig that makes the entire experience feel religious. You have to do it slowly and purposefully. There’s almost a zen to it. As I add the fresh fruit, the event takes on the aura of preparing an offering to the gods as it’s been detailed in some ancient sacred scripture. Intensifying the spirituality of the moment is the situation: this takes place at around 9:30 every morning as I break my 14-hour fast from the night before. All that’s missing is a prayer or mantra!

Once assembled, I thoroughly mix everything to make sure that the fig and prune bits don’t stick together and their sweetness is distributed throughout the bowl.

And then comes the eating. I remember when breakfasts were so hum-drum that I read the newspaper or a book or the back of the cereal box while mindlessly shoveled the food into my mouth, barely tasting it. No way I can do that with this feast!

Every bite is different. I want to luxuriate in and linger over every spoonful. Each taste begins with teeth crashing down on the chopped nuts while waiting for the tart explosions of the berries. The crunch of the apples is omnipresent, but it’s the always surprising sweet burst of the fig and prune bits that is the piece de resistance.

I savor every chew. I think of nothing else while I’m eating. It’s too good to miss a nanosecond of it!

And best of all—I know this will sound silly—but I feel healthy while I’m eating it. I know I’m doing something good for my brain. Each swallow reminds me that I am ‘feeding my head’ in the best way possible. It’s quite the ritual!

*** In fact, the definition of ‘granola’ is rolled oats mixed with a variety of other ingredients. Technically, then, this recipe isn’t even granola!


S1E46. I Am Not A Fanatic!

I’ve spent the last six months building a brain-healthy lifestyle by adjusting my diet, exercise and sleep routines, building cognitive challenges into each day, and trying to spend more time socializing. It came together bit-by-bit, day-by-day, until I had a system that pretty much governed every aspect of my existence, right down to monitoring and controlling the quality of the air I breathe in the apartment.

I’m more than happy to talk with people about what I’ve been doing and why (to whit, this blog), but I try really hard not to proselytize, for there’s nothing worse than the zealotry of a new convert who corners you in a conversation. So if I start going down that path, please let me know, as it is not at all my intention.

On the flip side of that coin, I’m uncomfortable when friends and family feel obligated to protect my journey by adjusting their behaviors to accommodate my lifestyle choices. I bristle whenever I hear, “Will there be anything you can eat if we go to that restaurant?” 

It’s not that I don’t appreciate their caring about me. I do. But I don’t feel as though I’ve earned their deference. It’s not as if I have a medical condition and will get sick if I go off my diet. It’s not a part of my religion, either. I won’t be denied entry into heaven if I eat a piece of cake. My body is not a temple and it will not be defiled no matter what I shovel into it.

I’m merely choosing to be a picky eater…and the consequences of that are 100% on me, along with the responsibility.

As far as I can tell, the downside of going off my diet is that I lose a little bit of time in the long-term project of cleaning the gunk out of my brain that can cause cognitive decline. I spent seventy years accumulating it, but I haven’t seen any research that quantifies how much time I have available to me to clean house.

So how much damage did I do over the last four days when I fell off the wagon? We went to the Bahamas to see the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team play in a tournament. I made a half-hearted effort to be faithful to my protocols, but staying at a vacation resort triggered a “you’re-on-vacation-go-for-it” reflex that had me making all sorts of unwise choices.

Alcohol is a no-no (except for about 5 ounces of red wine with dinner), but I couldn’t resist the allure of a Bahama Mama. Just one knocked me for a loop, but that didn’t stop me from trying a different restaurant signature cocktail each night!

Bread. I haven’t had bread in months except maybe to taste a sandwich that Sally had ordered. But there was no way I was going to say “no” to the breads and dipping oils that came with each meal. Same for pasta, which is the only thing I really miss in my new regimen.

Then there was the grotesquely sweet s’mores dessert with vanilla ice cream, chocolate fudge, marshmallow sauce and graham crackers. I’m surprised it didn’t trigger insulin shock in my sugar-deprived brain.

I didn’t observe my overnight fasting routine.

I had a rough night sleeping the night I had a Coke with dinner. In general, I’m pretty sure my increased sugar intake disrupted my sleep cycle big time.

In general, I over-ate, felt stuffed a lot and got hungry a lot sooner between meals.

Although we did a fair amount of walking, I didn’t really make an honest effort to try to exercise. The only time my heart got a workout was during the games which were all close and exciting.

Finding our way around the sprawling resort was quite the cognitive challenge, though. So was figuring out what to do when the air conditioning stopped working in our room. It took a while, but it dawned on me that perhaps the on-off switch is controlled by the doors to the balcony. Apparently, for the sake of energy efficiency, the air shuts off when you open the doors to the outside. It goes back on when you close them.

On the other hand, I didn’t realize until our third day there that all of our restaurant charges included a 15% gratuity. The wait staff must have laughed all the way to the bank each time I had added 20% to that!

So now I’m home and getting back into my routine. How much damage did I do? There’s no way to tell, but I doubt that I hurt my cause very much. It was interesting to see how quickly my body reacted to the changes…and not in a good way. It makes me more appreciative of the new path I am traveling.


S1E44. Probiotics…really?

I have never been what the marketers call an ‘early adopter.’ In fact, I fit pretty solidly into the group of people they identify as ‘laggards:’ those who only purchase things after they are well-established.

I’m pretty skeptical about most new products and consider them fads until proven otherwise. Growing up, I rejected the hula hoop and Elvis Presley. More recently, I believed the cell phone would never catch on. (Who on earth would want to talk to people in the aisle of a supermarket where everyone could hear the conversation???)

My initial reaction when I first heard the word ‘probiotics’ was “Really?” I had never warmed to the idea of eating organic foods and considered it a fad popular among liberal elites (even though I am a card-carrying member of that group). Introducing probiotics to the equation was crossing too many lines for me.

So I paid little attention to it until I started my research into brain health. I bristled when it first came up in my reading. All my alarms were going off as I learned about the gut microbiome that contains thousands of different organisms that are essential for digestion and creating the chemical compounds that are vital to brain health. Conversely, a poorly-functioning microbiome can generate neurotoxins. 

That caught my attention.

But as I delved deeper, I wasn’t convinced that the research has yet advanced to the point where we can definitively say that enhancing a certain group of bacteria is beneficial. There are just too many different organisms and too many combinations and too many potential interactions to say for sure, IMHO. Then there is the testing that indicates a lot of products marketed as probiotic supplements don’t contain what they claim and, worse still, what they do provide is not absorbed by your gut.

As is my tendency, I backed off a few steps and looked for a level of engagement that matched my comfort zone, given the data. 

A simple guideline that made sense to me was that you should include some fermented foods in your diet as they contain naturally occurring beneficial probiotic organisms that have long been consumed in various cultures. 

I tried kimchi, but hated it. Then I made a batch of sauerkraut and loved it. (It’s easy to make: just massage some kosher salt into a bowl of shredded cabbage, weigh it down, cover, then let it sit on the counter until it tastes right. It’s a whole lot better than commercial sauerkraut. It’s now my go-to afternoon snack, mixed with a little seaweed salad.

But I didn’t stop there. A word kept cropping up in my reading that I didn’t recognize: kefir. I checked it out and discovered it was a fermented milk product (like yogurt) and generated a number of probiotic organisms. The problem for me, though, was that I had given up dairy.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided that the potential benefits outweighed the negative impact of milk and milk fat, especially in small quantities. I gave it a try and it was delicious.

Since I had made my own yogurt for ten years at our B&B, I knew that my next project would be to make it myself. I ordered a kefir maker from Amazon which was basically a 2-quart glass jar with a perforated lid to allow for air circulation. It came with a packet of ‘kefir stones’ which contain the microbes that convert milk fat into the beneficial probiotic organisms.

I discovered that there was a product called ‘A2 milk’ which is supposed to be a little healthier than regular milk, so I bought some to make my kefir. It’s pretty simple: pour the milk into the jar, add the kefir stones, and let it sit on the counter for about 24 hours. For flavor, I added a pint of pureed strawberries to a quart of kefir. (Somehow, I had dropped strawberries from my diet, opting for blueberries and raspberries, instead. This corrects that oversight.)

It turned out wonderfully! It’s a little tart, so I add a packet of stevia to ½ cup of my homemade strawberry kefir and drink it for dessert each night. 

It took less than a week before I noticed a healthy change in my digestion. Wow…color me surprised!


S1E41. A Brain-Healthy Lifestyle Is…

…a full-time job!

When I first started learning about brain health back in May, I would come across the phrase ‘lifestyle changes’ pretty often. It referred to the likelihood that if you were a typical American, you would probably have to adopt several changes to your current lifestyle if you wanted to ward off cognitive decline and dementia.

These were things like changing your diet to minimize intake of sugars and saturated fats, and getting off your butt and exercising several times each week.

I thought: “Piece of cake…I can do this!”

I’ve been implementing those ‘lifestyle changes’ for about six months now and…you know what? Those changes make up the better part of my day! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I enjoy implementing the recommendations… but it’s turned into a full-time job.

Here is an accounting of what my new ‘lifestyle’ looks like from the perspective of the number of hours per day devoted to each of the five pillars of brain health:

1. Exercise: 1.7 hours. I’m working out six days each week. My workouts themselves take between 40-60 minutes, so I’m easily surpassing the 150-minutes/week brain health recommendation. But let’s add to that total my cool-down time (when I drink a pint of pomegranate juice mixed with filtered water) and the time it takes to shower. That gives me about 12 hours/week, or 1.7 hours/day devoted to my exercise regimen.

2. Diet:  2.0 hours. I’m still learning how to eat right which means that I’m still researching diet recommendations and recipes. Then there’s the grocery shopping, prep time (I’m now making my own granola and sauerkraut), cooking, and the actual eating. I’d say that this consumes an average of 2 hours each day.

3. Cognitive Challenge: 6.0 hours. I start my day by doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles. Figure 2½ hours there. I try to get half an hour of recorder practice in daily (but don’t always succeed) and then Sally and I listen to a vinyl album each night after dinner. Let’s call it 1 hour daily for music. Add another hour for reading books. I would like this to be a daily routine, but so far it’s more likely to be binge-reading the week before book club meets. I’ll add an hour for on-line activities like social media and reading the newspaper. Finally, I spend about half an hour each day thinking about, researching and writing this blog. If my math is correct, that adds up to 6 hours/day.

4. Social Engagement: 1 hour. This is my brain health weak spot. Compared to Sally who is out-and-about most of the day nearly every day, I am a veritable recluse. But I do manage to get together with others about twice each week. Although I work out in our apartment’s fitness center, there is rarely anyone else there. Same for when the pool was open. On nice days, my jogging path is the ⅓ mile loop around the building and I wave or say hello to everyone I see. On rare occasions, I will share the elevator with someone. None of this adds up to a ‘relationship,’ though, nor does it meet the criteria for ‘social engagement.’ So let’s be generous and round up to an average of 1 hour/day of ‘real’ social interaction with someone other than Sally.

5. Sleep: 9 hours. No…I don’t get 9 hours of sleep each night. It’s more like 7-8. But we do get in bed at 10:30pm and usually get up around 7:30am. This allows for time to fall asleep, wake up a few times in the middle of the night, lie awake for a little while in the morning before getting up, and still log the recommended 7-9 hours of solid sleep. It also facilitates our intermittent fasting schedule which has us stop eating at 7:30pm which is 3 hours before going to bed.

Here’s what it all adds up to:

1.7 Exercise

2.0 Diet

6.0 Cognitive Challenge

1.0 Social Engagement

9.0 Sleep

There you have it: 19.7 hours per day devoted to my newly-adopted brain healthy lifestyle. That leaves about 4 hours free for other pursuits. In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I’ll admit that I allocate about 1½ of them to my nap!

Now the question is: What will I do with all that free time?  😀


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