Protecting Your Brain as You Age

Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains exactly what you need to do stay sharp.

By Julie Stewart
Jan 5, 2021

When I finally get on the phone with Sanjay Gupta, M.D., in March, after he has rescheduled three times because he’s prepping for CNN’s first COVID-19 town hall, he’s relieved to be talking about something positive: brain science. “We’re seeing evidence that lifestyle changes can significantly improve brain health and even reverse brain disease,” he says. “That may not sound that significant, except that we really never thought of the brain that way until recently. We thought of the heart that way, and some other organs, but the brain was always this black box.”

The 50-year-old is best known for his CNN gig, but he’s also a practicing neurosurgeon at the Emory University School of Medicine, removing tumors and clipping aneurysms inside that black box, often while listening to the Gipsy Kings. In his spare time, he does triathlons (of course) and meditates (duh!), and he’s working on his fourth book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, due out early next year. It’s an evidence-based exploration of the latest science on brain health and what tactics are working for Dr. Gupta himself.

Here he shares his favorite tips and strategies—basically, what to do with your body, your meals, and your mental energy—for keeping your brain sharp. Here's how to make it happen:

1. Think of inactivity as a disease.
“Every time I’m about to sit, I ask myself: Do I need to sit right now?” Dr. Gupta says. “That may go further in terms of the benefit of movement on your brain than even going to the gym. I don’t have a chair in my office.” If you can stand or walk during meetings, phone calls, and other activities, do it. Think of inactivity as the disease rather than working out as the cure, he says.

2. Always be prepared to train.
Exercise boosts blood flow to your brain, tamps down inflammation, and promotes the growth of new brain cells. You need at least 150 minutes a week. “Wherever I am, I have running shoes, a swimsuit, and resistance bands,” says Dr. Gupta. He keeps weights in his bedroom and has a pullup bar in his office.

3. Walk, talk, gripe.
Take a brisk walk with a friend and talk about your problems. It’s a brain trifecta: moving, socializing, and releasing stress. “Doing those three things ends up measurably detoxifying your brain,” Dr. Gupta says. “I used to train very solitary, but walking more with friends has really changed my brain health. I can feel it.”

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4. Fuel yourself right for better focus.
To protect your brain, you need to control your blood sugar. Sugar in excess can be toxic, causing neurons to die and possibly triggering cognitive decline. Dr. Gupta experienced this firsthand when he cut added sugar from his diet for a 60 Minutes story and saw his “cognitive day” (how long you can be productive) increase.

He advises using the Global Council on Brain Health’s framework to prioritize what to eat. Here’s what’s on the A-list, and the B- and C-lists, too:

A-list foods: Consume these regularly

Fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens
Whole berries
Fish and other seafood (but not fried!)
Healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, whole eggs
Nuts and seeds
B-list foods: Include these foods in your life

Beans and other legumes
Whole fruits (in addition to berries)
Low-sugar, low-fat dairy, such as plain yogurt and cottage cheese
Whole grains
C-list foods: Limit these

Fried foods
Pastries, sugary foods
Processed foods
Red-meat products, such as bacon, salami, hot dogs
Red meat, such as beef, lamb, pork
Whole-fat dairy high in saturated fat, such as cheese and butter
Salt (use lemon juice, spices, or vinegar instead)
5. Eat real foods, not individual nutrients or supplements.
Dr. Gupta avoids most supplements. Real food contains a multitude of components that help beneficial ingredients (such as omega-3 fatty acids) travel through your body or even help unlock receptors so those beneficial ingredients can do their jobs. Doctors call this the “entourage effect,” and it’s why real food, like fish, is better than supplements, like fish-oil capsules, for brain health.

6. Drink instead of eat.
“We often mistake thirst for hunger,” says Dr. Gupta. “Even moderate amounts of dehydration can sap your energy and your brain rhythm.” After all, your brain is primarily made of water, and just 2% dehydration has a measurable impact on memory, processing speed, and analytical thinking. Dr. Gupta carries a 60-ounce water bottle with him and aims to finish it each day.

7. Make time for your friends.
“I saw social activities and things like that as very much an indulgence for most of my life,” Dr. Gupta says. Not anymore. Now he prioritizes them: His house is like Grand Central for his friends, his wife’s friends, plus his three daughters’ friends and their parents. “I spend time with people. I discover—which really engages all parts of the brain—and I kind of find my purpose in there as well by spending time with people, understanding their lives and letting them in on mine.” Research shows that individuals with large social networks are better protected against the cognitive declines related to Alzheimer’s than those with smaller networks.

8. Try the bubble method.
Dr. Gupta practices analytical meditation, a technique he learned from the Dalai Lama himself. (Both admit that meditation is hard.) With your eyes closed, think about a problem you are trying to solve and separate it from everything else by placing it in a large, clear bubble. This helps you isolate the problem from your emotions and solve it logically, he says.

9. For lasting brain health, maintain ikigai.
Ikigai is a Japanese word meaning “your reason for being”; it’s used a lot in Okinawa, where dementia rates are low. There’s power in forging a sense of purpose, says Dr. Gupta. “From my own trial and error, it’s too hard to just sit down one day and ask: What is my purpose?” In researching his new book, he typically found that actions preceded thought. “It was just an activity, something that you were interested in, and through that you find purpose, whether it’s volunteering, coaching, music, writing, art.” He says he gains meaning from helping people, whether sharing medical information or treating patients, as well as from his family and friends.

A final thought on brain health and Alzheimer’s disease
People often ask me whether they should get tested for the Alzheimer’s genes. Here’s what I say: First off, although about a quarter of Alzheimer’s patients have a strong family history of the disease, 1% or less inherited a gene that causes early-onset Alzheimer’s. These patients can show signs of the illness as early as their 30s, and many choose to enter clinical trials to help doctors better understand it. As for the more common late-onset Alzheimer’s, the APOE4 gene can raise your risk two to 12 times. It’s present in about 25 percent of people. However, it’s not deterministic, and experts are divided on whether it’s worth getting tested for it, because your lifestyle and habits influence your brain health more than genetics, says Dr. Gupta. If you want to get tested, do so under the guidance of your physician and a genetic counselor.