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.

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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: The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life

The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life
The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life by Timothy R. Jennings
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

How we think about God shapes everything. Timothy Jennings even argues that this shapes our brains, based on neuroscience research as well as the Bible. His basic argument is that lies and fear trigger parts of the brain that inhibit the reasoning and affectional parts of the pre-frontal cortex. This goes so far as creating or inhibiting the creation of new neural pathways.

What is significant is that this is a book that mixes science, counseling practice and theological insight and this is both what I liked and what I struggled with. Jennings argues that among the lies we believe and responses of fear that we make are ones that concern God. So far so good. We often have troubled consciences because we fail to believe that God really loves us and has unconditionally accepted us as his children and forgiven our sin. Jennings describes numerous cases in which people are helped as they re-align their thinking about God.

Where I struggle is what Jennings denies to get to this all-loving God. He soft peddles or outright denies the substitutionary aspects of Christ’s work on the cross, and I think opens the way to denying the necessity of the cross. It seems that what is most important for him is our turning toward God rather than turning away from him. The fire in the wrath of God becomes a fire of love that comforts those who believe but a consuming torment to those who rebel. Wrath is simply the natural outcome of our rebellious acts, not an action on the part of God. His view of hell is a kind of annihilation that occurs to those who cut themselves off from God, and find his pure, fiery love agonizing. These are not views unique to Jennings but he goes so far to argue for a good and loving God, that he explains away or minimizes the wrath and holiness of God. He does not deal with passages that talk about the proper “fear of the Lord.” I don’t find here the balance I might find with someone like C.S. Lewis, whose Aslan is “dangerous, but good.”

To his credit, the book concludes with a critique of eastern meditation techniques that, while having some beneficial effects, cause a suspension of activities in the pre-frontal cortex not characteristic of Christian meditation which is meditation on truth. He also includes some practical steps in an epilogue to a healthier brain. While I agree with Jennings that what we think about God shapes everything, including our brains, and that knowing the truth about the unconditional love of God toward us in Christ is indispensable to our lives, I think he makes unnecessary theological compromises along the way, failing to hold truths in their proper tension which is the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy. Ultimately, that cannot be healthy.

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Mr Rogers Was Right

fred-rogersI discovered Mr Rogers when my son was young. He would walk down the steps, put on his cardigan, change his shoes and welcome us to his neighborhood. He was quiet and gentle and never threatening. I could feel myself coming to rest as we walked through his neighborhood, as he talked about childhood fears, as he sang to us.

God Shaped Brain

A book I’m reading right now suggests that Mr Rogers knew what he was doing with little children. In The God-Shaped Brain, psychiatrist Timothy Jennings argues from research that the childhood brain is developing and wiring itself and that the violent stimulation of the brain inhibits development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brains responsible for reasoned thought. Instead, the limbic system, which is responsible for emotional responses, particularly our response to danger, fires up, hindering the pre-frontal cortex functions. He further argues that this happens with all “theatrical entertainment” on TV, but not with educational television. And he connects these things to issues of impulse control, ADHD and more.

He also quotes statistics that show that the advent of TV in the US and Canada in roughly 1945 correlates with a 93 percent increase in murder rates. What is interesting is that this was the time of Howdy Doody and Gilligan’s Island. In South Africa, where TV wasn’t introduced until 1974 and the content increasingly violent, the murder rate actually declined during the 1945 to 1974 period prior to TV but went up 130 percent 1974-87. Now many will argue this is correlation and not causation. But I would ask, what other causative variable might account for this?

As I was writing this, news came of another school shooting.  No doubt there will be discussions about mental illness. But in light of contemporary neuroscience, I wonder if we should be thinking more about how the brains of our children are being wired by media (and increasingly video) exposure at a young age, particularly before age 8. Certainly many will never act out violently. But what are the other effects? What about the capacity for sustained attention and rational thought? What about impulse control?

Will the visual media industry be like big tobacco, trying to deny the deleterious effects of their product? Time will tell. But more and more, as much as we might think him a bit odd and a product of another age, I can’t help but think that Mr Rogers was onto something.