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Hanover author urges us to give our brains a workout

  • Neuropsychologist John Randolph, of Hanover, N.H. has written a book about memory loss called "The Brain Health Book". (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2020 9:56:49 PM
Modified: 2/24/2020 1:20:25 PM

Think your brain is destined to shrivel bit by bit as the years go by?

Think again, says John Randolph.

In his new book, The Brain Health Book, the Hanover neuropsychologist presents a sunny view of gray matter, making the case that our brains are not only able to withstand the forces of aging but capable of regeneration and even growth later in life.

“We really do have a fair amount of control over our brain health,” Randolph said in a recent telephone interview. “What the science says is that the things that matter the most are the lifestyle choices that are free or inexpensive and available to all of us.”

These choices range from intuitive techniques such as doing crossword puzzles and sudoku to strategies less obviously connected to cognition, such as exercising, maintaining social connections and even defining your core values. Randolph, who conducts research at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College and has his own practice as a brain health coach and consultant in Lebanon, also emphasizes preventive measures including proper nutrition, adequate sleep and stress management.

If such a regimen sounds a bit overwhelming, Randolph recommends tackling the techniques one at a time. “Read just a few chapters and let those chapters simmer a bit,” he said. “It’s important to be realistic. … Making even a 10-15% change in one area of your life can make a huge difference.”

The book offers a layperson’s look at some of the latest research in neuroscience, along with checklists, quizzes and stories from Randolph’s practice, where he treats people with cognitive challenges as well as those who are simply interested in improving and preserving their cognitive skills.

Randolph, who is scheduled to discuss his book at the Norwich Bookstore next month after an appearance on Wednesday was canceled because of the weather forecast, believes that latter group is beginning to grow.

“It’s sort of like investing,” he said. “I think the wave of the future is to be thinking about how our brains are functioning right now and how that plots onto our future even decades down the road.”

For that reason, the book may be most relevant not to people in their 70s and 80s — although it’s never too late to think about brain health — but to those in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Many of the studies presented in the book demonstrate how lifestyle factors in middle age affect brain function in the later years.

For example, one evidence-based study showed that women who were the most physically fit in middle age were 88% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia than women who were moderately fit.

The importance of exercise in maintaining brain health really cannot be overemphasized, Randolph writes. It reduces inflammation, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s; lowers stress, which affects a variety of cognitive functions; boosts neurochemicals that help us focus, learn and remember new things; and even promotes growth in the hippocampus and frontal cortex.

“There is simply no better intervention to date that impacts the brain so profoundly and completely as exercise,” he writes.

The book also shows how social connections are closely linked to brain health. The amount of time we spend socializing, the size of our social networks and the degree of support we feel in those networks all play a role in cognition as we age. Conversely, negative relationships and isolation hurt the brain. Studies found that cognitive skills declined 20% faster among people who described themselves as lonely and that particularly isolated people have a 60% higher risk of cognitive decline than people with a large social network.

The book also demonstrates how stimulating mental activities such as playing games, reading and playing instruments improve brain health. One particularly compelling study examined sets of twins in which one played a musical instrument and one didn’t. The twins who played instruments were 64% less likely to develop dementia than those who didn’t.

Randolph, who moved to the Upper Valley from the West Coast 18 years ago to complete clinical and research fellowships in neuropsychology and neuroimaging at Dartmouth, has applied much of the research to his own life. He tries to eat a mostly Mediterranean-style diet — high in whole grains, fish, fruit, vegetables and legumes — and stays active by running, playing racquetball, snowboarding, skiing and kayaking. At 48, he’s in the prime age bracket to invest in his brain health.

And those investments aren’t limited to physical concerns like exercise and diet. Randolph also makes the case that our outlook and values have a profound effect on our brains, clearing out mental clutter and sharpening our focus on what matters.

“When we have a stronger purpose in life, when we have a good sense of what drives us day to day, that improves how the brain works,” he said. “Gratitude would be another example. When people engage in gratitude exercises on a regular basis, their brain health tends to be stronger.”

John Randolph will be at the Norwich Bookstore on March 18 at 7 p.m. For information or to save a seat, call 802-649-1114 or email info@norwichbookstore.com.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

Update

This story has been updated to reflect the event has been rescheduled for March 18.




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