In my initial blog about the new AARP research study on brain health I promised to explore their response to the public’s interest in “Staying Sharp” and use that focus as a launching pad to discuss important issues about how the field of brain health can and should develop.
Let’s look at some of the conclusions from the AARP research. As I mentioned in Get Sharp to Stay Sharp, the first conclusion the study reached -- that people are concerned about brain health -- should not surprise any of us. Awareness about brain research in general and about the potential of influencing our own brain health in particular has significantly increased over the last decade.
The AARP research reports that people are very concerned about maintaining healthy lifestyles and they see brain health and heart disease as the two most influential factors. Brain research has been making incredible advances in our basic knowledge about how the brain works and how it ages. This information, as the AARP survey indicates, is finding its way into the public consciousness -- at least on a superficial level -- through the popular press and a growing number of brain health advisors.
There is, however, an ironic twist to this burgeoning concern about brain health and health maintenance. As our awareness grows and as brain health advice proliferates, our general health and cognitive well being are getting worse. Obesity and diabetes, for example, have been shown to be strong risk factors for the development of all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Some even argue that Alzheimer’s should be characterized as Type 3 diabetes. Sadly, obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic levels in the United States and in most developed countries.
Clearly, something isn’t working. Yet, even if we seem to be losing the battle to protect our brains, there’s still time to get a plan and to take action.
Not surprisingly, the AARP research reveals that people who have to deal with Alzheimer’s on a daily basis are more aware of the need to maintain and improve their own brain health. But a truly disturbing fact is that only 45% of people who regularly confront Alzheimer’s are aware of the need to protect their own brains!
According to the AARP data, over half of the people who confront dementia on a daily basis are blind to the fact that they can, and should, be taking immediate action to protect their own brains. The levels in the general public are even worse. Only a dismal 35% understand the need to take control of their future brain health. I fear that too many people still labor under the mistaken and dangerous belief that cognitive decline is inevitable with old age. It’s all too clear that we must continue to raise awareness and foster optimism through fact-based brain health education.
Another problem is that awareness is only half the battle. Nothing really changes unless we take action and do something -- or to be precise, do the right combination of "somethings" -- to reduce cognitive decline and to promote flourishing and mental well being. There are two challenges here. One is finding the willpower and the resolve to change habits and adopt healthy lifestyles. The second challenge is to acquire accurate and detailed information about what actually triggers positive plastic changes in the brain.
As if we need more challenges! Consider these questions: Who do we turn to for answers? Who should we turn to for answers?
The AARP research indicates that the primary sources for information about brain health are doctors, friends and family. Now, nearly ever doctor does all she or he can to stay current with breakthroughs in brain health. We all have to acknowledge, however, that many practicing doctors have only a limited working knowledge about brain health or have knowledge that is out-of-date. Doctors trained more than 20 years ago probably learned very little about brain health and we now know that most of what they learned has been proven wrong. When I was directing AARP’s Staying Sharp, a top neuroscientist and teacher told me that half of what he was teaching medical students about the brain was probably wrong. The trouble, he explained, was that he didn’t know which half.
Research in brain health is developing so rapidly that it is nearly impossible for today’s medical doctors, who are focus on other conditions, to keep up let alone develop a deep understanding of such a complex field. Friends and family certainly mean well but must be viewed as suspect sources of information about brain health. If they know anything, their knowledge too often comes from factoids and top-ten lists on TV or in popular magazines. Brain health challenges simply cannot be addressed by a scatter-shot approach.
In a future blog we will discuss trusted sources for information on brain health and will explore the need to provide a contextual narrative about brain health that helps people organize the abundance of information.
Beyond awareness, we need to develop comprehensive, personalized brain health strategies that gradually modify our behaviors, replacing risky behaviors and habits with ones that protect and strengthen the brain.
So, if we do lose the battle for brain health, we won’t blame awareness. The blame will rest squarely on a failure to educate and motivate the public to be optimistic about preventing cognitive decline and then to be assertive about changing conditions that erode the strength and sharpness of our brains. In my next blog I’ll be joined by my MINDRAMP partner Roger Anunsen as we dig deeper into the topic of tailored, sustainable brain health strategies.
Learn more about MINDRAMP'S ideas on brain health in our new book Strong Brains, Sharp Minds: The Definitive Guide to the MINDRAMP Method for Brain Health and Mental Development.