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From the June 4th, 1997 issue of Smart Drug News [v5n9]. Copyright (c) 1997, 1998. All rights reserved.

Book Review:

Brain Longevity

review by Anne M. Fowkes

Brain Longevity: The Breakthrough Medical Program that Improves Your Mind and Memory, by Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D. with Cameron Stauth, Warner Books (ISBN: 0-446-52067-5) $25 hardback.

I see Brain Longevity as a quintessential book of the 90s. It blends many disparate elements of our current culture, such as Eastern and Western medical traditions, into a program that is somewhat mysterious yet eminently practical. It is touched by the wisdom of the ages, sculpted with double-blind placebo-controlled studies, and tempered by Dr. Khalsa’s own clinical experience.

It is in some ways a romance — a tale of a maverick young doctor scouring many paths to find the answers to questions that were raised during his work as an anesthesiologist, questions about why the stress surrounding surgery seemed to take a heavy toll on patients’ cognitive abilities. His discourse is often couched in seduction, luring the reader to join the quest, to lay aside the messages of allopathic disinterest and institutional complacency, and to reclaim the mystic “old age” which meant wisdom and power rather than an inexorable slide into the pre-death death of will and consciousness.

The evil genie in this story is cortisol, the product of a primitive stress response run amoc. Cortisol and adrenaline (also called norepinephrine) are major adrenal hormones of the fight-or-flight syndrome, which evolved to allow us to escape danger. Ordinarily, surges of cortisol are followed by periods of calmness, during which we can recover. However, the chronic stress of our current lives keeps us constantly in an activated state, in which cortisol is spewed out in quantities our bodies were never designed to handle.

Dr. Khalsa presents a compelling picture of just what all that unabated cortisol does to our brains. His overview of the brain describes it’s many parts, their functions, and the ways in which they are damaged by cortisol. He brings home the inseparability of the physical lump of organic matter, the brain, with the elusive phantom of the mind, and punctuates that correlation with examples of patients with varying levels of diminished capacity. He paints with a delicate brush the sadness, hopelessnes and helplessness of lives left to the ministrations of mainstream Western medical practice.

This is not a book for technically sophisticated readers to learn ever more about brain neurochemistry. It is, however, a call to arms for successful people to maintain their minds and well being into the next century, presenting a well-thought-out and practised program for brain longevity as well as high mental performance.

There were several things that I especially liked about the book. One was it’s simple presentation of the role of diet, the nutritional supplements he recommends (along with amounts of each to take), and the “tonics” that aid in the promotion of energy and the recovery of some lost (or fading) functions. Another is the overview of a cognitive-enhancing exercise program that encompasses mental, mind/body and aerobic approaches.

At the top of my list of good stuff are the kundalini yoga exercises (in the mind/body category). I had the fortune to learn one of these exercises a couple of years ago when Dr. Khalsa was visiting the San Francisco Bay area. At the time, I had an unavoidable, recurrent situation in my life which always put me in a fearful state for about two days (I have since come to realize that I was in a state of adrenal exhaustion at the time). Within minutes of doing the exercise for the first time, I happened into the situation again. To my surprise, I found that it no longer devastated me. I even retained the clarity of mind necessary to address the problem and resolve it permanently.

Other nifty things are the section on how to design your own program and a really super table which lists the various nutrients, tonics and drugs in his program — although there is nothing unusual about the substances or dosages by most smart-drug users’ standards.

Things that I would have liked to have seen included are citations to the studies mentioned in the book and a more complete discussion of the choices of different specific treatments for the patients mentioned in the book’s anecdotes.

Brain Longevity is well written, easy to understand, and inspiring. Its simple presentation of technical material makes it a great book for cognitive enhancement novices. It’s presentation of a balanced program provides some food for thought for the smart-drug afficionado. Its passionate call for a wise old age of continued productivity instead of “vegging out” in a nursing home is a missive I think none of us baby boomers should miss.

Young, old, in between, take care of your brain and read this book. Then, when you’re done, give it to someone you care about who doesn’t yet understand your interest in smart drugs.