Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain Through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom by Henry Emmons and David Alter

Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain Through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom by Henry Emmons and David Alter offers advice that all of us can use to live a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. Use this summary to see how you are doing and where you might need to improve. Then click at the bottom to purchase the book for the necessary details.

Henry Emmons and David Alter

  • Henry is a psychiatrist who integrates mind-body and natural therapies, including mindfulness and compassion practices into his clinical work for Partners in Resilience in Minneapolis. He is also the author of The Chemistry of Joy and The Chemistry of Calm, and a popular workshop and retreat leader for both healthcare professionals and the general public.
  • David is a psychologist with thirty years’ experience in health, psychology, neuropsychology, and clinical hypnosis, which he integrates in his work. He is a sought-after speaker, teacher, and trainer offering talks, workshops, and retreats to general and professional audiences. He is a cofounder of Partners in Healing, a center for holistic health in Minneapolis, and conducts his practice there.


  • Before the authors get to their Nine Keys to a Youthful Brain, they offer three chapters that discuss how the brain works and what happens as it naturally ages. Even though it does slow down, new neurons do form and new connections can be made. We also have less ability to pay attention, find learning more challenging, and take longer to retrieve information.
  • They also focus on the concept of mindfulness, which deals with what you consciously do with your brain as you navigate your environment. This is called purposeful attention. There is nothing to stop you from being emotionally aware and cultivating a more joyful life. In addition to mind, we are also body and spirit.

The Nine Keys to a Youthful Brain

  • 1. A Youthful Brain Loves Movement. Lack of movement is a strong reason behind many modern chronic health problems. Movement exercises the body and the brain. Exercise also helps reduce stress. There is lots of specific advice here and it’s never too late to start.
  • 2. A Youthful Brain Is Well Rested. It is well established that sleep and other forms of rest are good for brain health. It also promotes good mood, memory, and healing. Short naps during the day also seem to be beneficial as long as you are sleeping well at night. If you are having trouble sleeping you might find the cause here along with tips for improving your sleep experience.
  • 3. A Youthful Brain Is Well Nourished. This should be obvious. We generally eat too much, not enough fiber, and too much sugar. The authors suggest you try to eat unprocessed foods, emphasize plants and healthy fats, shift some protein away from meats, reduce sugars, drink more water, get more fiber and probiotics, and drink alcohol in moderation. There are good specifics on each of these issues along with tips to eat more mindfully.
  • 4. A Youthful Brain Cultivates Curiosity. Curiosity activates the reward centers deep within the brain. It is a whole brain exercise that integrates the knowledge circuits of the left brain with the pattern-seeking circuits of the right brain. It will keep you fresh and lead to a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life. If you cultivate your own curiosity, the world will be a more beautiful place and boredom will fade. If you seek out novelty you will become a constant learner. Get the book to learn how.
  • 5. A Youthful Brain Stays Flexible. This runs counter to nature’s design, but has more to do with fear than destiny. If you respond more flexibly to change, life can become more enjoyable, rewarding, and fulfilling. One way to do this is to spend more time thinking about thinking (metacognition). The other keys contribute to your flexibility as will advice in this chapter.
  • 6. A Youthful Brain Is Optimistic. Our brains are hardwired to be optimistic and you can increase your optimism with practice. It evolved to keep us engaged when logic suggests we give up. It’s benefits can be measured in terms of physical and mental health criteria. It will certainly make you more resilient as you age.
  • 7. A Youthful Brain Is Empathic. Empathy arises from brain regions that regulate the quality of our relationships. You should practice empathy to help regulate your mind and behavior. This is how you influence the brains you interact with. Practicing empathy can make you more calm, content, and satisfied. Parents need to promote this quality in their children. One focus here is active listening, which is an important leadership skill.
  • 8. A Youthful Brain Is Well Connected. The brain needs connection to others. Forming strong bonds early has a lasting impact. We need to learn how to create, grow, and maintain healthy social connections. This is very important as we age. Physical and mental health are necessary for positive social connections. If you do this right you will feel loved, respected, and listened to. This relates to Howard Gardner’s inter-personal intelligence. Even if you aren’t a natural connector, you can become one.
  • 9. A Youthful Brain Is Authentic. No one wants to live someone else’s life. This key requires that you listen to yourself and live a life true to who you are. If you pull this one off, you should feel more confident and self-assured. This relates to Howard Gardner’s intra-personal intelligence and it can be increase with intent. Meditation can help.


  • Even though I strongly suggest you purchase and read this entire book, this summary can act as a self-test that can help you see where you stand. While I’ve read most of this advice elsewhere, this book does a great job of pulling it all together. I was happy to see that I have already been following these keys. In my case, this book served to reinforce my approach to life, which has served me well. I’ve never missed a day of work due to illness, and don’t find life stressful. I enjoy the world and the people I meet, and people often tell me that I don’t look like I was born in 1947. I hope you are in the same boat, but if not, see what you can do to take the advice given here. You will also find tips here you can share with others at work or in your personal life. Good luck.
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