Review: The Aging Brain

The aging brain

The Aging BrainTimothy R. Jennings, MD. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: A discussion of the causes of aging and brain deterioration and the lifestyle measures that can be taken to avert or delay dementia.

In the area where I live, there has been a boom in construction of “memory care” facilities–nursing facilities that focus on helping seniors dealing with memory and other cognitive losses. One friend, whose parent died recently spoke of saying good bye to his parent years ago, and finally laying him to rest of late. As we age, the thought increasingly occurs, could it be us? With that, we may also wonder–is there anything that can be done?

According to Dr. Timothy Jennings, there actually are a number of steps we can take to delay or prevent certain forms of dementia and stay sharp (he does offer a disclaimer that this book does not address all forms of dementia, but particularly late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and that any of the interventions in this book should be done in consultation with one’s physician).

The good news, in one sense, is that dementia is an issue simply because we are living longer. Yet he maintains as a fundamental principle that brain health and bodily health go hand in hand, in part because so many of our body systems exist to support the functioning of our brains. Even our dental health is connected to brain health. It’s not even just a matter of genes. Epigenetics looks at gene expression and certain factors block or facilitate gene expression–diet, smoking, alcohol, pollution and stress being significant factors. Similarly, there are inevitable aging processes in the shortening of the telomeres at the end of our genes which leads to more replication errors. Some of the same factors mentioned above have impact here as well as sun exposure, physical activity, sexually transmitted diseases and relational conflict.

Oxidative stress breaks down the cells in our bodies in the same way that metal rusts. Obesity, diets high in sugar, and excessive alcohol use, any tobacco use, and illegal substances all create oxidative stresses on the body. One of the big takeaways here is that moderate exercise coupled with reduced consumption of all forms of sugar, browned or deep-fried foods, and more vegetables, fruit, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, and 7-8 hours of sleep seem to be crucial steps we can take.

Exercise and sleep come up in separate chapters. There is clear evidence that moderate exercise for 30-40 minutes a day at least five days a week enhances cognitive abilities. Sleep plays a crucial role in the removal of toxins that build up in the brain during our waking ours. Developing new interests, particularly those that involve both mental and physical learning keep laying down new neural pathways. Beyond this, Jennings returns to the importance of practices that reduce stress and that our beliefs matter, where unhealthy views of God may be worse than a well-adjusted atheism. Ideally, for him as a believing person, it is a belief system where trust and love for a Creator results in a life of knowing one is loved and expressed in loving.

The last part of the book, on pathological aging, apart from its explanation of the physiology of Alzheimer’s disease, and practical considerations for caregivers, seems to review the recommendations made earlier in the book. He does include a chapter on vitamins and supplements and which are, and are not, helpful. There is an addendum in the book on smoking cessation.

While I found the recommendations practical and instructive, and the research support for these recommendations compelling, it felt a bit that this book might encourage a “if I just do all the right things, I won’t have a problem” mentality. Reality doesn’t always seem to work that way. What seems evident to me is that these recommendations do make a difference, particularly when measured over large populations. They do seem to enhance our well-being in the absence of any underlying condition. His “use it or lose it” mantra just makes common sense.

We all age, and our brains with the rest of us. But healthy bodies nurtured by healthy lifestyle practices mean healthier brains. Most of us hope, I think, that our bodies won’t outlast our brains. While we don’t have any guarantees, Jennings helps us understand what we can do, what we should avoid, and how it can help.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Musicophilia

MusicophiliaMusicophiliaOliver Sacks. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

Summary: Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the neuroscience of music–the various ways music affects the brain, and the unusual effects of various neurological conditions on our perception, performance, and experience of music.

Oliver Sacks died on August 30 of this year. A few months earlier, my son gave me this book, and it seemed especially appropriate to pull it off the “to be read” pile and acquaint myself with the work of this neuroscientist and physician. Before opening the book, I had one of those heart-stopping moments as I found myself staring at the cover picture of Sacks and thought I was looking at a doppelganger! I guess balding men with graying beards, glasses and a certain shape of head can look a bit like each other.

What Sacks does is chronicle the fascinating ways music and the brain interact and some of the unusual conditions that involve unusual responses to music. In the course of this book he explores a range of phenomena beginning with a sudden onset of musical interest following a lightening strike, the ways music might evoke seizures or suppress the tics of Tourettes or the shaking of Parkinson’s. He wonders whether the advent of iPods will result in more brainworms–those tunes we can’t get out of our heads.He describes musical hallucinations, where one hears music in one’s head even when none is playing.

He explores musicality from tone deafness to perfect pitch (which occurs more in musical families and where musical training begins early) and synesthesia, where music is associated with color. He explores the connections between music, memory and movement. He describes Clive, who because of brain infection that affected his temporal lobes lives in a perpetual present with no memory of past moments. Yet somehow he remembers music he knew in the past.

Perhaps a highlight of the book was his description of a camp for people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the development of the brain resulting in low IQs and yet incredible verbal and musical skills. He describes the delight these people had in talking and making music with one another.

In one of the concluding chapters he describes the work done with Alzheimer’s patients and how, for them as well, music is a connection to memories of the past, and an anchor to their no-longer remembered lives that is profound. He talks about “the loss of self” and how music helps Alzheimer’s patients connect to some sense of “self” when the other memories are gone.

The book left me in wonder at the intricacies of the human brain and how the neural circuitry related to our perception, memory of, and making of music interact with speech, thought, emotion, and other memories. And it reminded me of the power of music–a power to evoke emotions, memories, and even to address troubling neurological conditions. It reminds me of how when I am learning, singing and performing a piece of music, I find myself tapping into a different aspect of who I am from when I am simply speaking or writing or reading. And I found myself thankful for the life of Oliver Sacks, who cared for people with troubling conditions and brought together his love for his patients, his skills in research, and his own musicality and life history into this fascinating narrative of music and the human brain.