On June 10th something wonderful happened, and the media hasn’t paid much attention yet. On that day, the National Public Health Road Map to Maintaining Cognitive Health was released by the CDC and the Alzheimer’s Association. The authors proposed a set of 44 actions to reach a lofty goal: To maintain or improve the cognitive performance of all adults across America. This is great timing, given all the research and media attention that this field is getting, and the aging of the baby boomer population.
I want to first share with you the 10 top actions proposed by this report, and then provide a quick glossary to explain the key words that you will hear more and more when discussing brain health.
1) To determine how diverse audiences think about cognitive health and its associations with lifestyle factors. This work has all-ready yielded in a phenomenal report on Baby boomers’ current opinion of Brain Health and Fitness, that you can find in the website of the MetLife Foundation.
2) To disseminate the latest science to increase public understanding of cognitive health and to dispel common misconceptions. The discovery of lifelong neuroplasticity and neurogenesis (see glossary below) has given us a new positive view upon the human brain – This is still a concept not many know of. “Use it or lose it” and “Use It and Get More of It” needs to reach all people.
3) Help people understand the connection between risk and protective factors and cognitive health. Protective factors were well summarized in the MacArthur study of successful aging: good nutrition, mental and physical exercise, stress management and social engagement.
4) Assess the literature on risk factors (vascular risk and physical inactivity) and related interventions for relationships with cognitive health. As Dr. Marilyn S. Albert at John Hopkins points it out: All the things that we know are bad for your heart turn out to be bad for your brain.
5) More clinical trials will be conducted to determine the effect of reducing vascular risk factors on lowering the risk of cognitive decline and improving cognitive function. Recent findings presented at International Conference on Prevention of Dementia are one big step in the right direction.
6) Further, more research will be conducted on other areas potentially affecting cognitive health such as nutrition, mental activity, and social engagement.
7) The last research focus is on determining the effect of physical activity on reducing the risk of cognitive decline and improving cognitive function.
8) The government will develop a population-based surveillance system to measure the public health burden of cognitive impairment in the United States.
9) Initiate policy changes at the federal, state, and local levels to promote cognitive health by engaging public officials.
10) Brain Fitness will be included in Healthy People 2020, a set of health objectives for the nation that will serve as the foundation for state and community public health plans.
This initiative will help people of all ages take more control of our brain health in the same way we care about our nutrition and body health.
Now let’s review some of the most relevant concepts in this field. This vocabulary will become familiar to all of us during the next years::
Brain Fitness: the general state of good, sharp, brain and mind, especially as the result of mental and physical exercise and proper nutrition.
Brain Fitness Program: structured set of brain exercises, usually computer-based, designed to train specific brain areas and functions in targeted ways, and measured by brain fitness assessments.
Chronic Stress: ongoing, long-term stress. Continued physiological arousal where stressors block the formation of new neurons and negatively impact the immune system’s defenses.
Cognitive training: variety of brain exercises designed to help work out specific “mental muscles”. The principle underlying cognitive training is to help improve “core” abilities, such as attention, memory, problem-solving, which many people consider as fixed.
Cognitive Reserve: theory that addresses the fact that individuals vary considerably in the severity of cognitive aging and clinical dementia. Mental stimulation, education and occupational level are believed to be major active components of building a cognitive reserve that can help resist the attacks of mental disease.
fMRI: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a non-invasive neuroimaging technique that enables researchers see images of changing blood flow in the brain associated with neural activity. This allows images to be generated that reflect which structures are activated (and how) during performance of different tasks.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): yoga and meditation practices designed to enable effective responses to stress, pain, and illness.
Neurogenesis: the process by which neurons are created all throughout our lives.
Neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life.
Exciting times ahead! We should all be looking forward what science will bring us to help develop and grow gracefully as we age.