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By Herb Weiss
The Washington, DC-based AARP releases its latest Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) report citing strong scientific evidence that behavior changes and lifestyle habits can positively impact one’s brain health – yet many adults struggle to implement such simple changes.
In a new report released last month, “How to Sustain Brain Healthy Behaviors: Applying Lessons of Public Health and Science to Drive Change,” GCBH outlines how individuals age 50 and over, communities, and policymakers can all take steps to support brain health.
The World Health Organization predicts that the number of people living with dementia is expected to grow to 82 million by 2030 and skyrocketing to 152 million by 2050. The GCBH report notes to lower this expected trajectory it will take “effective behavior and cultural changes, initiated and driven by all the pertinent actors working in concert at all levels of society.”
The 38-page report and its recommendations are based on a review of the current state of science and the consensus of 20 experts from across the world in an array of disciplines, notes the report. GCBH is an independent collaboration of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts from all over the world who are working in the area of brain health related to human cognition to promote brain health.
GCBH’s 38-page report, released March 15, 2022, provides tips to support brain-healthy behavior. Over the past six years, the GCBH has issued reports on broad topics taking a look at whether adults’ behavior and lifestyle style habits could affect their brain health as they grow older.
“While we encourage people to make good decisions, the GCBH recognizes that an effective strategy to enhance brain health must be framed broadly, and that individual choices are made in a larger social and environmental context… Simply putting research findings forward and expecting people to change their behaviors and sustain healthy lifestyles accordingly is unrealistic,” say the report’s authors.
Calls for Supporting Positive Brain Health
In the latest GCBH report, the authors share what they have learned about how to persuade and motivate people to maintain brain-healthy lifestyles, and how community policies can be shaped to promote this vital goal.
“We know what works to support brain health – this report focuses on how to make that happen,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, GCBH’s Executive Director. “Our experts have identified specific, practical tips to help older adults, communities and policymakers support the habits that are good for brain health. We show that change is possible, and why supporting brain health for an aging population makes good health and economic sense for communities and society as well as individuals,” Lock says.
“We describe why implementing programs designed to promote brain health for older adults makes good health and economic sense for communities and societies as well as individuals. GCBH experts advise individuals to set specific goals, be realistic about what they choose, and approach their goals step by step,” says the report’s authors.
“We encourage community-based organizations to create opportunities for peer-to-peer coaching. And we urge policymakers to raise public awareness that people can take steps to help themselves. These and many other recommendations along with a framework for achieving change for individuals, community organizations and policymakers are provided in the final report approved by the GCBH Governance Committee,” they add.
The GCBH report also calls for addressing the disparities in health and access to care that undermine the cognitive well-being of underserved communities including many African Americans and Hispanics.
Hearing loss, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression are among the health issues that may be linked to cognitive decline and should be properly managed with access to health care.
The Six Pillars of Brain Health
After a careful analysis of scientific findings, GCBH’s report notes that “evidence continues to mount” that people may be able to lower their risks for cognitive decline by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors, referred to as the six pillars of brain health.
“Be social” and continue to maintain and expand your social network. Keep tabs on family and friends and don’t isolate yourself from others.
The GCBH recommendations urge people to avoid smoking and not drink alcohol. But if you drink, limit alcohol to no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.
The Brain-Heart Connection is examined in GCBH’s report. Hypertension is a serious risk to brain health that can lead to stroke, mild cognitive impairment, or dementia. With knowledge of this, the report notes that people can lower blood pressure by increasing physical activity and reduce overeating, excess drinking, smoking and even reducing sodium (salt) intake.
The GCBH report provides simple, easily obtainable steps to make successful behavioral changes to improve brain health. Specifically, people can:
Set a goal, identify a specific action you want to take on.
Be thoughtful and realistic about the goals you choose.
Find something that is fun and choose what is enjoyable for you.
Re-purpose some of your free time.
Rethink your environment to reduce the temptations and encourage better choices.
Celebrate the wins.
Learn from the setbacks.
Involve friends and family with common goals to reinforce healthy choices; and
Pick a good start time.
While brain health behavior changes can be achieved by individuals, these changes require the support health care providers, employers, and community organizations. Health care providers can help their patients improve their lifestyle habits and make healthy choices to reduce risks and alleviate the symptoms of disease. Employers can promote healthy behaviors too by creating healthier work environments, offering wellness initiatives, health screenings, immunizations, supporting healthy sleep by minimizing shift work, not requiring employees to respond to emails 24/7 and respecting vacations and breaktimes. These all can promote better brain and mental health, says the GCBH report.
Mission-driven organizations, like AARP, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Heart Association, can also provide individuals with needed information and tools to access their own wellness and motivate a person to make positive behavior changes.
Finally, policymakers can set goals to improve the public’s brain health with a focus on building equity, fighting the sigma of dementia, and implementing best practice to improve brain health from around the world. They can also become aware of how public policies in other areas, such as the built environment, nutrition, and education, can have a lifelong impact on brain health. Some specific examples of successful public health policies include seat-belt laws and smoking cessation requirements.
“A chasm remains between what researchers are discovering about brain health and how little this knowledge has been applied for the public good. Progress will require the combined actions of individuals and communities, reinforced by public policies that facilitate healthy lifestyles,” says the report’s authors. “By applying lessons of public health and science, we can improve brain health for the benefit of individuals, communities and countries around the world,” they say, noting that this report lays out the steps needed to achieve this goal.
The full report on “How to Sustain Brain Healthy Behaviors” is available by going to https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/health/brain_health/2022-03/gcbh-behavior-change-report-english.doi.10.26419-2Fpia.00106.001.pdf.
To obtain all of the GCBH’s past reports on brain health, go to https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/resource-library/.
To see how staying socially active impacts brain health, go to https://thriveglobal.com/stories/spumoni-s-where-everybody-knows-your-name-study-says-being-socially-active-may-improve-cognitive-functioning-2/
Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.