Dr. Richard Carmona, has donned several unique hats during his life, including that of a combat-decorated Vietnam veteran, physician, police officer and politician. He served as the U.S. Surgeon General from 2002 to 2006 under George W. Bush, and is well-known for his 2006 report on the dangers of second-hand smoke, which led to many states imposing bans on smoking in restaurants and bars. Currently, Dr. Carmona is the president of the Canyon Ranch Institute in Tucson, Ariz., a nonprofit public charity whose mission is to “help educate, inspire, and empower every person to prevent disease and embrace a life of wellness.” Dr. Carmona’s latest book, Canyon Ranch’s 30 Days to a Better Brain: A Groundbreaking Program for Improving Your Memory, Concentration, Mood, & Overall Well-Being,will be available May 6th at amazon.com. I had the chance to speak with Dr. Carmona about his upcoming book and the (sometimes neglected) focus in America to overall brain health.
KM: What do you feel is the biggest misconception people have when it comes to brain health?
RC: I think maybe more than a misconception, people don’t understand that the choices of their activities, the choices of the behaviors that they express every day, can have a direct effect on their mental health and their cognitive ability. Things such as the foods you eat, the exercises you do or don’t do, the stresses that you incur in life, the environment that you live in, smoking…all of those things will have an effect on your cognitive ability either directly or indirectly.
KM: Are there certain brain exercises people can do to sharpen thinking and improve memory?
RC: I think we can safely say that as long as you continue to challenge yourself through the ages—take up a new form of exercise, read, listen to music, learn to play an instrument—all of those things create new neural networks, what we call neural plasticity. All your life, you’ve written with your right hand; try writing with your left hand, try brushing your teeth with the weak hand, stand on one foot, so every time you do something like that it stimulates the brain to make a new connection so that it will remember to do it again and help you to do it safely. So, challenging yourself through life intellectually and physically is important to help retain your cognitive ability.
KM: There are some apps out there geared toward brain exercises that are getting popular, what is your opinion of this trend?
RC: [Dr. Michael Merzenich]who is actually one of my professors from medical school said decades ago, before anyone even understood that you could continue to reshape your brain throughout life—they pretty much taught that at 60, 70 years old you’re not going to effect the brain anymore. And Dr. Merzenich, a neuroanatomist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, was telling us he didn’t think that was true. We know that’s not true now. And years later he’s done the research to prove it. He developed this company called Posit that has brain games. These games challenge you to think differently. Whether it’s adding numbers, or it’s chasing cursors across the screen, it’s causing you to focus in a different way. It’s stimulating the brain in a way you’re not use to and, again, that helps to develop those neural networks. And helps preserve the old ones.
KM: Are there certain physical exercises that stimulate the brain more than others?
RC: It’s interesting. One of the concepts we’ve talked about for a few years when I came back from being surgeon general is that we do well at teaching people how to stay physically fit and active through life, pursuing optimal health and wellness, but nobody was dealing with the brain. And one of the things that became apparent to me, we needed to start brain gyms. How do we exercise the brain? Any physical exercise is good, because as you pedal a bike, as you run, as you swim, as you do resistance bands, as you do yoga—all of those activities require a neural network to support it. Therefore the more cross-training you do with different things that keep the mind stimulated, it keeps that brain young, it preserves the neural networks you have and helps you grow new neural networks. This is the science of neuroplasticity. The key is to find things that you enjoy doing physically. Walk, run, swim, play tennis and do all of them. Stay physically active throughout life and that helps to preserve your cognitive ability.
KM: Do you feel the Canyon Ranch 30-day program can help people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease?
RC: For the average senior with cognitive decline, in medical terms, dementia, you start forgetting things, you get a little confused, and that whole spectrum of dementia includes something called Alzheimer’s disease. What all of these dementias have in common is that you begin to lose your cognitive ability. We know that whether it’s Alzheimer’s, whether it’s dementia from aging, if you come into our environment at Canyon Ranch, we know how we can teach you to pursue optimal health and wellness as well as preserve your cognitive function. That doesn’t mean we are treating you and the disease goes away. But we know the variables that will help you to stay younger longer as you age, because that’s what you are trying to do. You want to age gracefully, but you want to age and stay younger in your mind and your body. By staying physically fit and eating the right foods, putting the right fuel in your body, when you are physically fit it optimizes brain health as well as cardiovascular health. All of those things are important. There is no science out there to say, ‘This is the best exercise for your brain,’ but the science is real clear that all physical activity that is sustained over time is good for your brain health.
KM: What types of foods are brain foods and which are toxic to the brain?
RC: When we look at cardiovascular health and health in general and nutrition, we speak about a diet that is rich in non-processed foods; organic and natural, high in fruits and vegetables and all the food groups. Protein sources from fish, fowl and if you eat red meat, then lean cuts of beef. Because what you are trying to do is load your body up with anti-inflammatory things, Omega-3-rich for instance, flaxseed, etc. These substrates, chemicals that go into the body, go into your cells and ultimately become the precursors for a lot of other chemicals that mediate inflammation. Cause inflammation and stop inflammation. The more fatty foods you eat, the more trans fat acids that you eat, the higher incidence of stimulating inflammation. So when we look at the inflammatory process and when we look at cognitive ability, they kind of run hand-in-hand. If you are eating healthier foods, having less inflammatory response, staying physically active, you’re optimizing your health as well as your brain health.
In 30 Days to a Better Brain, Dr. Carmona lays out a 30-day nutrition, exercise and medical plan to help optimize brain health. He also discusses the importance of sleep, medical tests to ask your doctor about and the best ways to challenge your brain. Sounds like a no-brainer to at least check it out!
Kevin McGuire is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. He received a B.A. in journalism from Rowan University in New Jersey and is the Social Media Manager for AFAA (Aerobics and Fitness Association of America). He is also the Managing Editor of American Fitness magazine (www.americanfitness.squarespace.com) based in Sherman Oaks, CA. He often tweets the latest headlines in the world of social media @followmcg andexpands into other topics such as celebrity profiles, the trials of everyday life and the forthcoming zombie apocalypse on his blog atwww.kevinmcguirewriter.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.