Science teaches us that people’s habits and lifestyles can affect their brain health for better or worse. Yet even when we know that healthy behaviors can reduce our risks for cognitive decline, we still cling to habits and behaviors that heighten our risks as we age. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
That is why I’m so excited about a new report from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH): “How to Sustain Brain Healthy Behaviors: Applying Lessons of Public Health and Science to Drive Change.” The report outlines key strategies to empower adults to live brain healthy lifestyles. Instituting these changes will help maintain our health and happiness and lower our risks for dementia, and improve our quality of life if we do experience cognitive decline. Importantly, the GCBH experts recognize that people don’t take actions or make decisions in a vacuum. Policymakers and communities, including employers and health care providers, have critical roles to play in shaping a world that facilitates better brain health.
We already know a lot that works. AARP, for example, recommends Six Pillars of Brain Health that are endorsed by experts around the world: social engagement, mental stimulation, stress management, exercise, eating right, and adequate sleep. Studies also point to the health benefits of managing blood pressure and blood sugar.
But while we know what works, not enough people make use of this knowledge. Change is hard. Ingrained habits are tough to break. But the GCBH report shows that change is possible if all sectors work together. The experts offer an assortment of tips and suggestions to achieve change on a scale that would benefit all of society.
Among the highlights:
- For individuals: Set specific goals. Find ways to make healthy behaviors enjoyable. Celebrate your wins. Be realistic in selecting goals, and approach them step by step. Use some of your free time to boost brain health.
- For communities (including health care providers, employers and community organizations): Understanding that better brain health for adults will help you, lower your costs, and improve your community as well as serve your missions, use your platforms to promote brain healthy behaviors. Make opportunities for peer-to-peer coaching. Listen to your audience. Keep track of their response to your efforts.
- For policymakers: Raise public awareness that people can take steps to help themselves. Set goals to improve brain health with a focus on equity. Fight the stigma of dementia. Consider how policies in areas varied as the built environment, nutrition and education, can affect brain health. Implement best practices from around the world.
Let’s all remember: The brain does not inevitably go downhill as we age. Yes, our bodies change over time. But we can take steps that may prevent, delay or minimize problems that may (or may not) arise. Committing to healthy lifestyles and habits helps keep our brains and bodies as sharp as possible through the course of adulthood.
As the population ages, strategies to support brain health will only grow in importance. Such efforts should become an explicit goal of policy at the local, state, national, and international levels.
Together, we can apply the lessons of public health and science to sustain the best possible brain health for millions. The GCBH’s new report provides a much-needed roadmap to achieve this vision.