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9 Keys to Staying Mentally Sharp

You can have a youthful brain at any age

By Henry Emmons, M.D. and David Alter, Ph.D.

(Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom, by Henry Emmons, M.D., and David Alter, Ph.D. The book, released last month by Touchstone, follows on Emmons' two previous books, The Chemistry of Joy and The Chemistry of Calm.)

Learning how to integrate brain, mind, and heart into a harmonious whole has never been more needed. The sheer number of demands that compete for our limited time, attention and energy is unprecedented in human history, and it is no wonder that we cannot always manage them with ease. This pressure may partially account for the explosion of chronic health challenges that plague people the world over. And with an aging population, experts expect an epidemic of age-related brain illnesses that society will be ill equipped to confront. In the face of these challenges, developing the resilience and vitality to better adapt and thrive in the second half of life has never been more urgent.

Staying Sharp Book Cover

The second half of life will no doubt be filled with unavoidable challenges. But there is a clear path through these challenges, a path rooted in brain science, in practices attentive to the physical needs of body and brain, in mindful awareness, in habits of intimacy. On this path you will move forward, despite life’s hazards, toward joy.

The heart of our approach [in the book] is the Staying Sharp program. This program ... consists of nine key lessons from neuroscience that together provide the key elements to growing and maintaining a youthful brain. Each chapter introduces one key lesson, with the first three keys  devoted to building a resilient brain; the next three keys focus on cultivating a vibrant mind; and the final three keys focus on  discovering how to awaken your heart.

The 9 Keys to a Youthful Brain

  1.  A youthful brain loves movement. You’ll learn how exercise and moving your body mindfully can directly improve brain health, energy, and the quality of your emotions.
  2. A youthful brain is well rested. Sleep problems seem to rise exponentially as we age. You’ll learn how to recharge your mind through safe, natural, mind-body approaches to sleep.
  3. A youthful brain is well nourished. You’ll learn about the best brain foods and supplements, as well as ways to bring mindful approaches to your eating habits.
  4. A youthful brain cultivates curiosity. We discuss the potent brain fertilizers of novelty, play, and wonder and how you can incorporate more of these into your life.
  5. A youthful brain is flexible. We will learn about neuroplasticity, the brain’s amazing capacity to change and adapt through the whole of our lives. By enhancing your own ability to remain flexible, you will be able to thrive despite the challenges you will undoubtedly face in the second half of life.
  6. A youthful brain is optimistic. While we naturally vary in degrees of optimism, it is a skill that can be honed with great rewards. We highlight the science of optimism and show you how to cultivate this inner quality to enhance the legacy that you would like your life to have.
  7. A youthful brain is empathic. Our brains are wired to care, to be generous and compassionate, and when we grow in the capacity to love well, so does our happiness. We discuss the science of empathy and show how you can use it to grow in your own level of joy.
  8. A youthful brain is well connected. We are social beings, and our brains change when we are around others. We contemplate the importance of connecting with others in meaningful ways and developing an ever growing sense of belonging in the world.
  9. A youthful brain is authentic. One of the most important goals of a well-lived life [is] to become more and more fully yourself. Living authentically is the fruit of all the other practices, and it can also be its own pursuit when we develop the capacity to live consciously and fully, expressing our own deepest nature.

Find Your Inherent Resilience


Each of us has an inherent resilience that can help us to engage life again. If you feel lost, as so many of us do in the middle of our lives, you may simply need some guidance to develop the skills needed to get yourself back onto the path of your own radiant life. As men who are aging ourselves, and trying to do so with some degree of grace and skill, we hope to share both what we know and how we try to live our own lives.

It is possible to have a youthful, resilient brain; a vibrant, wise mind; and a joyful, awakened heart well into advanced age.

Excerpted from STAYING SHARP by Henry Emmons, MD, and David Alter, PhD. Copyright © 2015 by Henry Emmons, MD, and David Alter, PhD. Reprinted with permission from Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.



Henry Emmons, M.D.Emmons is a Minneapolis psychiatrist and co-author of Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain Through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom. Read More
David Alter, Ph.D.Alter is a Minneapolis psychologist and co-author of Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain Through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom. Read More
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