Gary Null, an author of more than seventy books on aging, health, and the brain, writes in the introduction of his book, Gary Null’s Mind Power: Rejuvenate Your Brain and Memory Naturally:
I look at the people I went to high school with and am shocked to see how sick they look. They look old and beaten up because they are living like their parents. They believe they are just doing what good citizens do. And indeed they are all good, decent, kindhearted citizens, but they aren’t being good to themselves. And now their illnesses and their prematurely aged bodies are a testament to what happens when you never question old beliefs.
And so, I challenge you to examine your definitions of aging, to challenge a belief system that tells you that you must accept a quiet decline, a gradual fading of the mind, body, and spirit. I challenge you to remember that it is the quality of your own beliefs that ultimately determines the quality of your life and growth for your brain and your body, no matter what your age.
Null goes on to say that we have a “use or lose it” brain at any age, what weakens brain function is not merely the act of aging and that the brain does not inevitably wear out as we grow old. He posits that the body and brain begin to experience the cumulative effects of damaging lifestyle habits and outside influences and what has been labeled “age-related” decline is really the result of neglect of our bodies and brains. He writes:
Staying vital both mentally and physically as we age requires paying close attention to the mind/body connection and the effects of outside factors – such as environment, nutrition and diet, stress and emotion – bring to bare on our welfare.
…If we understand the negative factors and how they impact our mental vitality, we can make the necessary changes to ensure vigorous mental health throughout our lifetimes.
He states that “our genes can only be as healthful as the medium in which we allow them to exist.” Null describes key lifestyle factors negatively impacting mental health as we age as follows:
Stress – There have been numerous studies showing that stress adversely affects the brain. Research has shown that stress can actually rewire the emotional circuits of the brain. Constant stress causes elevated cortisol levels, the fight-or-flight hormone released in response to physical or psychological threat, which can result in the atrophy and death of neurons in the brain. Intense, continual stress suppresses the immune system making a person vulnerable to illness, both physical and mental and may cause brain damage that can lead to major depression or memory impairment.
Nicotine – While the link between smoking and cancer and heart disease is generally understood, the effects of nicotine on the brain are as dire. Nicotine reduces oxygen levels in the blood and blood flow to the brain.
Alcohol – Disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, impairs the formation of memories, and depresses the central nervous system. Alcohol negatively influences areas of the brain involved in emotion, processing of sensory information, and stress regulation.
Caffeine – Excessive consumption of caffeine disturbs sleep patterns, depletes the body and brain of important B vitamins, and can exacerbate anxiety.
Inactivity – The old belief that as people age, they should slow down is, in fact, according to Null, the worst possible advice for both your brain and body. Muscle activity and chemical activity in the brain are closely related.
The benefits of physical exercise on the brain are many: improved blood flow, increased oxygen, and the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters. The benefits of mental exercise are equally as impressive: strong neural connections, stimulation of new neuron growth, balanced levels of neurotransmitters, and increased memory and cognitive functions. There is no reason to let any of your muscles atrophy, brain included, simply because you are getting older.
Nutrition and the Brain – According to Null, poor nutrition and diet are a leading cause of many brain diseases and conditions that are often attributed to aging. Studies have shown that the typical American diet of fast food, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, and sugar actually causes the brain to shrink over the course of our lives because the brain is deprived of necessary nutrients and oxygen.
Sugar is high on my list of substances that should be completely banned from our diets. Sugar is nothing short of toxic to our bodies. Sugar depletes B vitamins and calcium, generates exceptionally high levels of cell-damaging free radicals, promoting inflammation throughout the body, especially in the brain.
Over consumption of sugar can cause irritability, anxiety, confusion, nervousness, mood swings. lack of concentration, fatigue, depression, and headaches.
Fats – A diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat and animal protein contributes to heart attacks and strokes. Fats are carried by the blood stream to the delicate tissues of the brain where they coat them with a waxy substance, known as amyloidal protein buildup or plaque. This plaque has an inflammatory effect on the brain and is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Null believes that inflammation is the primary cause of brain aging and that vitamin and mineral deficiencies and hormone imbalance also play a significant role.
By creating a healthy environment and lifestyle for your brain, Null suggests that your brain does not have to become weak and fragile simply because it is growing older. In his book, he offers specific diet and supplementation plans, as well as lifestyle modifications, that will protect your brain and even reverse the toll that negative behaviors, habits, and environments may have taken.
Your brain will benefit from even minor changes such as taking a walk, eating healthier, and practicing stress reduction techniques. Small changes, done consistently, over time, can make a big difference to your brain and overall health no matter what your age.