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This will be included in a series of blogs tentatively titled “Brain Health and Aging” based on my last 6 years of teaching. I’ll be pulling them together using Mike Nelson’s newly improved WordPress Plugin Print My Blog Pro.

During my last five years of my Carroll University teaching I became particularly interested in brain health and aging. Recently I have had the opportunity to read carefully several well-written, research-based books summarizing the best science about brain health maintenance. 

There are far too many brain myths and unsubstantiated claims about quick fixes for memory lapses. Though the typical self-help book reader may find Dr. John Randolph’s The Brain Health Book: Using the Power of Neuroscience to Improve Your Life too academic, the author writes well, provides abundant and excellent examples, and offers many good suggestions for creating brain-healthy habits. He identifies several cognitive strategies for enhancing our ability to remember, organize, and manage daily life information and suggests different kinds of activities that maintain or improve brain health. Also, he offers science-based suggestions for preventing brain health problems and strategies for engaging in and maintaining brain-healthy habits. He correctly identifies the limitations of “brain-training games” but thoughtfully discusses recent scientific positive psychology research dealing with the efficacy of mindfulness-based stress reduction, self-affirmation, and gratitude journals. Moreover, his advice is supported by 250 citations of high-quality research. Here is a recent podcast interviewing him. 

Recently I completed reading Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Keeping Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any AgeI have tremendous respect for the author.  I come away from the book with even greater admiration for the things he has done.  It is truly amazing how many famous people he has interacted with. Things that I liked about his latest book include the following:

    1. a clear focus on the why’s and how’s of factors that affect brain health and aging.
    2. witty titles, his optimism, and his good humor.
    3. “Myth busting”
    4. Good practical advice on better sleeping
    5. interesting facts, lessons, and personal experiences (such as meditating with the Dalai Lama and visiting De Hogeweyk)
    6. Lots of important and helpful information about Alzheimer’s disease and caring for Alzheimer’s disease family members’ financial, social and emotional costs
    7. A good summary of assessment of Alzheimer’s disease

                Things that I disliked about the book included the following:

    1. It was unclear what the relationship is between Sanjay and the AARP though their trademark appears on the copyright page and their webpage promotes the book

and even includes a link to Sanjay reading Chapter 7 “Food for Thought.”

2. It took the author 90 pages to get to his “five pillars” for building a better brain at any age: 1) Move, 2) Discover, 3) Relax,4)  Nourish, and 5) Connect. These “pillars” are no different categories than those suggested by other authors (see below for some additional suggested readings) His “simple 12 week program” essentially involves incorporating the five pillars into one’s lifestyle as habits and reflecting upon the experiences.

3. There appeared to me no consistent rationale for why some of the text was presented against a grey background. The author often meanders off topics or contradicts himself. For example, he initially claims that he presents his pillars in no particular order of importance but later (correctly) states that exercise (movement) has the most and best scientific evidence that it affects brain health.

                    Readers who are buying the book to learn more about Sanjay will be rewarded. One is introduced to his family, his diet, his personal guide to good eating (Slash sugars,Hydrate, Add more Omega 3 fatty acids, Reduce portions, Plan meals ahead of time) his daily exercise regimen,  his preferred meditation practice, many of his CNN/journalist/surgeon experiences, and to a fascinating array of people whom he has met (Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, William Dement, Steven Hawking, and many others). 

By far, the best book on these topics that I have read to date is High Octane Brain by Carroll University graduate and Harvard and Yale-trained board-certified neuropsychologist Dr. Michelle Braun. Highly praised by Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair, former Wisconsin governor Martin J. Shreiber, and a number of leading experts in the field the book gives the reader a helpful, hopeful, manageable, practical, and actionable plan for optimizing one’s brain health. 

The book’s unusual format is one of its many strengths. Woven throughout the chapters are interviews with eight brain health experts who add context and value to the chapter topics addressed.  At the end of chapters are “Top Takeaways” summaries. The scientific basis of the High Octane Brain program is well documented by over 200 references from well respected scientific journals and well-designed randomized clinical trials. The last two chapters introduce the reader to brain health success stories (role models) ages 44 to 83 and brain health hall of famers ages 91 to 103. Thematically woven into chapters throughout the book are two characters, Meredith and Lou, who take a seven week High Octane Brain class and who share their goals, challenges, and outcomes. A key component of the book included in Appendix I is the High-Octane Brain Action Planner and Tracking System.

The author does an excellent job of lucidly explaining the latest scientific thinking about brain aging and convincingly debunks myths and corrects misunderstandings and misconceptions about “brain training,” brain supplements and mindfulness. She is fair-minded in indicating when there is yet a need for additional research The five science-based steps she advocates leading to a High-Octane-Brain (exercise, consuming healthy food, engaging and learning, lowering stress while boosting well-being, and adequate sleep) are presented in the order in which the most and best scientific evidence supports the steps. She alerts the reader to the large number of ongoing, international randomized clinical trials whose preliminary findings offer empirical hope that systematically managing these life-style factors can indeed maximize brain health. 

Well-written, well-documented, full of pragmatic advice, helpful and hopeful – this book is a game changer well-deserving of being widely read and its ideas put into practice.  I’ve already attempted to incorporate its wisdom into my life even though it means cutting back on my pastry eating!

Were I to teach a brain-health course, I would definitely use all three books. I might also consider drawing upon Daniel J. Levitin’s book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. The author is knowledgable, witty, and upbeat in contradicting many of the negative myths about aging. You can find numerous engaging presentations by him online promoting his book. Here is one (click me) and here is a second (click me, too!)

For those readers looking for additional specific guidance, here are some additional brain health resources my students and I have examined and written about over the past five years.

  1. Thoughts about Brain Fitness Software Training Claims
  2. Ten Brain Enriching Resources
  3. Brain Boosting or Bloated Claims?
  4. Brain Health Resources
  5. Promising Research or Wishful Thinking?
  6. Sharpening My Brain
  7. Brain Fitness Training: Fact vs. Fiction
  8. Can my old brain be (re)trained?
  9. Still More Reflections on Successful Aging