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Staying Sharp

Staying sharp these days means more than job performance or meeting family obligations. It's about saving the quality of our lives from the ravages of a global pandemic; day to day struggles and an exaggerated sense that life is causing us to age more quickly. Because many of the challenges are new, we need to make changes and create new ways to effectively cope.

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If you have noticed changes in your mood or energy as we move into March following a series of snow storms in the previous month; and a year of the pandemic; or have witnessed an increase in physical conditions that accompany feelings of loneliness or isolation, it may be time to do what Stephen Covey talked about in his famous book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” namely, “sharpen the saw.” His meaning is interpreted as: “preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you.”  It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental and spiritual.”  What could be better as we experience the strong winds of powerful change in the month that roars in like a lion and celebrates women in all their glory. Let’s also acknowledge the mounting losses and a diminished capacity among some who have bravely coped, but who are now feeling the cumulative effect of a year of stress and multiple challenges. For some, the struggles of aging have compounded the complex journey and accelerated the process with distressing consequences that range from boredom; loneliness; depression and dementia on top of the threats to health from the virus, access to testing, vaccines and hope to manage the growing concerns about resistant mutations.  Here is where we need to call for reinforcements to bolster us so that we can, indeed, “sharpen the saw” to keep us resilient and thriving.

The past week was filled with many shocking announcements about very public figures; a momentous full moon; climate change disasters in Texas; and some final relief from a series of local snow storms that prompted more isolation and hibernation. It was announced that our hometown celebrity, 94 year old Tony Bennett, has been suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  A beloved local leader and female champion for equity in the community also announced her cancer diagnosis. The Governor, who was praised and lauded for his masterful handling of the pandemic just months ago, came under attack on multiple fronts.  Altogether, these events have the potential for triggering some negative fear based emotions.

Just this past weekend, I attended the virtual monthly meeting of my family’s book club which is called: “Nuclear Fusion.” I was offered the opportunity to chose this month’s selection prompted by a CBS  Sunday Morning broadcast featuring the CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.  In the segment, he talked about the ways to build resiliency and protective factors to address the ominous risk factors for the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease and the normative aspects of the aging process. The hopefulness and simplicity of his remarks, coupled with his expertise as a distinguished neurosurgeon and professor at Emory University at the Emory University School of Medicine; as well as his real life standing as a family man committed to practicing what he preaches, impressed me so much that I picked up his new book entitled: “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age” and recommended it to the book club.  It offers a “simple 12-Week Program for launching a plan to practice lifestyle approaches that can support each of us.  According to the endorsement of the book by the always forward looking Bill Gates: “we can dramatically improve human life, and “Keep Sharp” is a helpful primer for anyone who wants to better understand brain function and how to preserve it.” I would like to share some of the recommendations from Gupta to further the goal of helping us withstand the turbulence and uncertainty that currently challenges us with added burdens.  For the sake of clarity, I have taken the liberty of grouping his recommendations into the categories of mind, body and spirit to capture the holistic nature of his lifestyle practices that he says can actually override “inheritance.”

Mind: Just say “no” to multitasking. He says, “At some point, the number of things you can do effectively at one time diminishes”/”ending attempts to multitask can actually be a good thing for the brain.”  Building “cognitive reserves” through cognitive stimulation suggests benefits from being a lifelong learner. Surprisingly, he notes that video games may “make better and faster use of visual input” compared to certain brain stimulating activities and crossword puzzles. Gupta recommends staying in the moment. Meditation adds to the benefits of stillness and a relaxed mind ready to take on the challenges of life. He was made a believe by a rare introduction to meditation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama using something called “analytical meditation” to ease the transition to this habit for Gupta’s scientific mind bent toward problem solving.

Body: Sleep “is medicine.” He stresses the importance of sleep related to brain health and also recommends patterns of daily living that include periods of rest and relaxation to accompany healthy sleep hygiene. Gupta believes that both are essential. He makes many strong recommendations for healthy eating that include the familiar Mediterranean diet and a colorful plate “eating the rainbow” and adding fiber. He suggests getting omega -3 from food sources rather than supplements; eating fatty fish, nuts, seeds, using olive oil, spices like turmeric and limiting sugar. Regular flossing was deemed important because it “removes debris and bacteria buildup that can ultimately lead to gum disease and increased risk of stroke. Smaller portions are suggested and most importantly, we are told to HYDRATE because the brain thrives with proper amounts of water. Exercise and movement are characterized as “anti-aging and anti-depressant” activities. Yoga is cited for multiple benefits including deep relaxation and holistic integration of mind, body and spirit.

Spirit: Social support is the premiere ingredient in what Gupta refers to as “a rich, dynamic, complex life.” He recommends connecting with those you care about on a regular basis. Imagine the adage about ‘putting all of your eggs in one basket.’ For example, if you are a workaholic with no time for family, or a recluse who shuns close contact, one trip and you will fall into the desperation of deep loss and despair because you put everything into one thing instead of having multiple sources of support and connection. A sense of purpose is a key factor in resilience. He says, don’t retire from life or meaningful engagement and work.

I can attest to the value of keeping stimulated and supported by the many great books that you can find which provide guidance for the journey that we are currently on. Even the AARP magazine is a wonderful source of information.  You don’t have to be an elder to be curious or concerned about the aging process. Gupta confirms, based on the research, that the stage is set for Alzheimer’s decades before symptoms appear, so young people need to be aware and proactive.  Many of us hear cancer or Alzheimer’s and we think we have a death sentence. Well, in all honesty as I recall many comics including one “old school” comic, Red Skelton, say: “Nobody get out this alive,” so instead of bracing ourselves with fear-based dread, let’s think about the beautiful prospects for our quality of life and life that is well-lived.  Instead of wringing our hands and feeling helpless and hopeless, let’s get busy helping ourselves to a bright future. Remember the Law of Attraction: “What you think about you bring about. “ Think about the positive changes you can make to support your chances of having a full, rich life.

Last week I, too, succumbed to some awful feelings that left me depleted and down hearted. I felt as though I were dying inside from the realization of all the personal and collective losses. The contemplation of my own aging process brought into focus from the fact that I fully retired in September of 2020 left me wondering about memory loss and a fading sense of energetic connection to my life’s purpose.  A narrowing and shrinking sense of my current situation started to emerge, and I was left in a corner of my life based on the illusion created by several days of hibernation during the snow storms; bad news from various sources and a glaring lack of meaningful connection and movement in my life.  This was scary and I had to plow my way back to an improved perspective complete with hopefulness, energy and a sense of meaningful purpose.  I did what I have taught thousands of people to do over the years through my books and seminars; namely, to begin to use relaxation breathing; become still; reach out and most importantly, MOVE. I sat quiet and breathed like I was trying to save my own life. I connected with neighbors and friends in the community; got busy with my aerobics class, stretch workout and yoga practice and suddenly was restored. All the while I know that, just as Covey warned, the “saw” can get dull again and I will need to sharpen it before I can cut down those negative patterns of thought that cycle through my mind and are felt in my body and spirit. I am looking forward to continuing my purpose-driven work by writing my newest book tentatively entitled: “Never Far Away”; a collection of poetry and essays as a chronicle of the life lessons that I have learned on my journey. Yes, as Helen Keller notably said: “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.” I sincerely hope that you will read this week’s humble offering and be encouraged and uplifted as you cope with personal or shared struggles. March promises to come in like a lion, but also has a tendency to go out with the gentleness of a lamb.  Hang on. Stay sharp and be well.

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weekly prompt 2/27/21

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