Brain Health Is Public Health

Our lifespans have been extended by 30 years in the past century. How we will spend those years depends in part on our genes and what we’ve done for the past 30. But it also depends a great deal on what we are prepared to do today. Specifically, for our brains. To effectively tackle this, we need to make brain health a public health priority.

The statistics back me up:

  • The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2040, people 65-plus will make up 21% of the population, and those 85-plus will increase by 118%.
  • According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, from 2019 to 2050, the number of people with dementia will double to 139 million, with a global cost of $2.8 trillion by 2030.

Here are three strategies to bring brain health to the forefront of public consciousness and add prevention, not just intervention, to our tactics.

  1. Get a check-up from the neck up at age 60. This is an important preventive measure we can all take in light of the fact that it is possible to lower our risk of dementia by 40% through lifestyle interventions. The baseline is a starting point, not a diagnosis.

‘Brain fog’ and ‘attention issues’ are often dismissed as a natural consequence of aging, but they can be symptoms of correctible conditions.

At the senior living communities where I serve as Senior Director of Well-Being and Brain Health, our brain health coaches and therapists promote early baseline testing as a bull-by-the-horns approach to personalized wellness. So far, hundreds of residents have signed up.

Our tests are not meant to detect dementia – though they can detect cognitive issues. Rather, they give residents knowledge and the basis for a plan.

  1. Add brain health to our public health messaging.

Tap into the excellent public health messaging around issues like diabetes, obesity, hearing loss, high blood pressure, and sleep to raise awareness on their impact on the brain.

Through decades of work and investment, the public has gotten the message about the physical health consequences many common diseases and conditions.

But their impact on our brains is largely missing from the conversation. And it is direct and just as important.

Take high blood pressure, which affects almost two-thirds of adults 60-plus. The brain needs plenty of oxygen-rich blood for optimal functioning. We know high blood pressure reduces blood flow to our heart, but do we understand it’s doing the same to our brain? Vascular dementia is one of the most correctible types of cognitive dysfunction, but we have to identify it in order to address it.

  1. Change how we think about wellness.

Just as it’s time to expand how we talk about common health issues, let’s change the conversation around wellness.

I see seniors every day who are physically limited yet still enjoying and engaging in life. Why? Because they are cognitively fit.

We emphasize physical fitness, but the dimensions of wellness include social, emotional, spiritual, and vocational among others. And none of those absolutely require physical fitness.

A healthy brain does require physical activity – research continues to bear out that it’s the single-most important thing you can do.

But social stimulation is also vital to cognitive health, as is nutrition, sleep, working your brain through problem-solving and novel experiences, and getting out in nature.

We’ve taken a step forward in brain health at Asbury Communities, where we are rolling out our Kinnections Brain Health program across our system, and where last year we celebrated the grand opening of the Rosborough Wellness and Brain Health Center for Excellence at Asbury Methodist Village, an intentionally designed space featuring a climbing wall, exergaming and boxing. Open to all area seniors, Kinnections includes a baseline cognitive assessment, an individualized plan, and follow-up with a brain health coach.

It’s hardly enough for the magnitude of the issue we are facing. Make brain health a public health priority and we can begin building the resources to tackle it.

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