Hypochondria is a watchword of pandemic. Never before have many of us been so attentive to our health and its many detractors - door handles, uncovered mouths and nostrils.
The hypochondriac impulse, especially in a time of unsolvable anxiety, can bleed beyond its immediate reference point - COVID - and into a hypersensitivity to the idea of our own fragility.
Against this background, renowned Australian medical personality Kerryn Phelps has released a new book, How to Keep Your Brain Young: Preserve Memory, Reduce Dementia Risk, Harness Neuroplasticity, and Restore Function.
A pocket guide for brain-health phenomena, it is comprised of chapters like "Alcohol and the Brain" and "Brain and Connectedness", themselves built of subtopics as short as 50 words or as long as several pages. The book is divided into three major sections. The first two thirds of the book relate descriptively to brain function, beginning with fairly scholastic accounts of neurons, the lobes, and other brain business. The final third - the latter two parts - more overtly realises the promise of the title, producing advice and a plan for brain maintenance.
It is well written and clear, not recoiling from technical complexity, but nevertheless approachable and implementable. It's generality however carries the feel of "public health" information. The first half in particular is perhaps better approached on a "pick and choose" basis - engage with sections that are interesting or relevant, leave others for a later return.
How to Keep Your Brain Young sometimes reveals more about the absence of what we know than the presence. Often talk of blueberry breakfasts or fish omega leads us back to the inevitable, dominant determinant, genetics, in a veiled but somewhat underwhelming way; and still further study may simply be needed.
The book's general recommendations can also seem a bit recurrent: don't drink, don't smoke, don't stress.
It is nevertheless revealing of topics of discussion in aging and the brain that are not ordinarily known - it has a lot to teach, for example, about conditions, such as "dementia mimics", that are under-advertised.
I found chapters 23 and 24 on "Brain and Exercise" and "Brain and Food" particularly interesting, informative and applicable, and am the more enthused to learn an instrument from hearing the persuasive brain benefits.
The book, then, does what it says on the box: an interesting foray into the state of the discourse on the brain and aging, but one that, like the hypochondriac impulse itself, rewards a selective, light-hearted approach - we've had enough grave urgency this year!
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