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Let's Talk Brain Health

3D illustration of a human brain

July 09, 2024

In the past, neurologists have focused on caring for people who have forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, in addition to continuing to search for cures, physicians and researchers have begun focusing on brain health as a way of preventing or slowing the onset of neurologic disorders such as dementia.

The American Academy of Neurology defines brain health as "a continuous state of attaining and maintaining the optimal neurologic function that best supports one’s physical, mental and social well-being through every stage of life.”

In other words, when we keep our brains healthy, we are more likely to enjoy better physical, mental and social health. To learn more about this movement to focus on brain health, we sat down with Sarah Hon, DO, vice president of neurosciences for The University of Kansas Health System, and asked her to help us better understand what is meant by the term brain health, and what we can do to improve it.

Photo of Sarah J. Hon, DO

Q: Why is brain health becoming a focus in neurosciences now?
A: The focus on brain health reflects our broader understanding of the interconnected nature of various brain issues and has prompted a more collaborative approach to neurological research and care. Our brains determine who we are as individuals. Our brains sustain our well-being at every level throughout our lives and mold our personalities, fuel our ambitions and propel our movements. Unlike other diseases that affect the body, changes in the brain fundamentally shift who we are.

Q: What does brain health encompass?
A: Brain health covers much more than only cognition and is not only a concern for older adults. Alzheimer’s disease is only 1 brain condition and 1 form of dementia. Millions of people of all ages are affected by stroke, headache  – including migraine, epilepsy  and other brain disorders. Patients who have diseases affecting the brain often have dysfunction in other parts of the nervous system like the spinal cord, nerves and muscles. The reverse can also be true, with diseases that affect other parts of the nervous system causing dysfunction in the brain.

Q: Knowing our brain health affects all parts of our health, what can we do today to help keep our brains healthy?
A: It’s important to remember that people of every age should work on their brain health. We are learning more all the time about the genetic and lifestyle risk factors that might predispose people to brain diseases. We are also beginning to understand that brain changes often occur years before any physical or mental disease symptoms show up. There are several things anyone can do to help their brain health, even if they’ve already begun to experience symptoms of a brain disorder. While you can’t change your genes, you can start at any age to make lifestyle changes that can improve or maintain your brain health. Here are 6 tips from Lifestyle Empowerment for Alzheimer’s Prevention (LEAP), an educational program of the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

  1. Move more: Find ways to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting. Our lives have become far more sedentary than they used to be, which affects all areas of our health. Adding any kind of activity each day can have an immediate impact on your brain health. To increase your activity, try doing more of what you’re already doing to move each day, such gardening, walking the dog and playing with your children or grandchildren.
  2. Get fit: Once you’ve begun moving more, the next logical step is to work on getting fit. Exercise  – structured movement aimed at improving your health and fitness – requires working and training your body in ways that enhance your cardiovascular health and bone and muscle mass. In addition, moving more throughout the day is key to protecting your brain. Be sure to add balance, flexibility, aerobic and strengthening exercises to your fitness routine.
  3. Eat healthy: A healthy eating pattern, such as a Mediterranean-style diet, can help keep your brain healthy. Include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats such as fatty fish and olive oil. Limit highly processed foods and added sugars.
  4. Sleep well: High-quality sleep is essential to maintaining brain health. You should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep a night. You can improve your sleep  by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, developing a relaxing bedtime routine and avoiding screen time and bright lights in the evening.
  5. Stay connected: Your brain needs to stay active to remain healthy. You can do this by engaging in social and cognitive activities. Maintaining a robust social network has many benefits, including reduced risk for some medical and mental health conditions, a stronger immune system, more emotional support in times of stress and more opportunities for physical activity. Some beneficial cognitive activities include trying new activities and learning new skills. Our brains thrive on variety and challenge.
  6. Manage stress and mental health: Everyone experiences stress, but chronic stress may harm the brain over time, so learning to manage stress is vital for brain health. Be sure to build stress management techniques  such as meditation, breathing exercises, art or yoga into your wellness routine. And if you are feeling consistently down, hopeless or anxious, it’s important to talk to your primary care provider or a qualified mental health professional. They can help you address depression, anxiety, and any other mental health concerns.

Are you curious about how your current habits might affect your brain health? Get your LEAP brain-healthy lifestyle score to find out how you stack up in the 6 areas above.

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