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New Survey: Americans Say Brain Health Is Crucial, but Protection Is Challenging

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En español | An  AARP survey on brain health has found a significant gap between what people believe is good for their brains and what they actually do to preserve their cognitive function. The survey, of more than 1,500 adults over age 40, found that although 98 percent said maintaining and improving brain health was very or somewhat important, only about half are participating in activities — such as exercising, eating a healthy diet and reducing stress — that have been shown to protect cognitive health. Nearly 4 in 10 surveyed also said they have noticed a decline in their ability to remember things over the past five years.

To better inform people about maintaining and improving their cognitive health, AARP’s new Global Council on Brain Health has collaborated with Age UK to gather a leading group of scientists, doctors, scholars and policy experts from around the world to create white papers, scientific reviews and additional research that will provide evidenced-based information on maintaining and improving brain health. Members of the council include Ronald Petersen, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic; Miia Kivipelto, M.D., of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm; Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Jason Karlawish, M.D., from the University of Pennsylvania.

Read the latest discoveries, exercise and memory-sharpening tips, and health care reform — AARP Health Newsletter »

“With so much conflicting information coming out of the news about what’s good for your brain, having trusted experts cut through the clutter to help us understand what we know and what we don’t know about brain health can help people make good choices,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vice president of policy, research and international affairs. “This new survey is showing that there are big gaps between what people think is important for their brains and what they are actually doing to maintain their brain health.”

Of those who say they are engaging in brain-healthy activities, 54 percent said they that were challenging their minds with games, puzzles or hobbies; 56 percent said they were eating a healthy diet; 56 percent said they were exercising; and 65 percent said they were socializing with friends. More than a quarter also said they believed their wisdom and knowledge had increased over the past five years. The gap between what those surveyed thought was important and what they were doing was widest in stress management, with 96 percent saying that reducing stress was very or somewhat important but 43 percent saying they were managing it effectively.

A recent Institute of Medicine report on cognitive aging noted that regular exercise and reducing stress are both associated with mental sharpness in old age.

Other highlights of the survey include:


  • Those surveyed ranked their brain health higher than their overall health, with 61 percent saying their brain health is excellent or very good but only 43 percent ranking their overall health as excellent or very good.
  • Women tend to place a higher importance on brain health than men do and are more concerned about their own brain health declining in the future.
  • When asked what situations would best motivate behavior changes, 64 percent said a major illness or chronic disease related to brain health would greatly encourage them, followed by 56 percent saying they would be greatly encouraged to change behavior when they noticed their memory or focus declining.
  • Sixty-five percent of adults take vitamins or supplements, and three-quarters of all adults believe these are effective in improving brain health. The Institute of Medicine report did not find evidence that vitamins or supplements — such as ginkgo biloba — prevent cognitive decline.
  • Although a wide variety of activities — including sleep, healthy eating and exercise — were seen as important to brain health, challenging the mind with games and puzzles was ranked most important.
  • The average age of adults over age 40 who noticed a decline in their ability to remember things is 55.


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Ethnic differences:


  • African American and Hispanic adults place more importance on brain health than the general population does, according to the survey. African Americans, however, are less likely to engage in brain-healthy activities, such as exercise and eating a healthy diet.
  • The African Americans in the survey were more likely to turn to their health care providers for information rather than to the general population, whereas the Hispanic adults surveyed were more likely to turn to family or friends.
  • Half of Hispanic and African American adults are very interested in how challenging the mind is related to brain health, compared with just over one-third of the general population and Asians.


Brain Health survey responses





Source: AARP 2015 Survey on Brain Health

Photo: JackF/iStock

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