Tuesday, May 5, 2015


A new poll from the American Society on Aging and the MetLife Foundation asked people ages 42 and older about their brain health concerns. What they learned from the poll was surprising and encouraging. The data challenges us to consider how we as a nation should approach brain fitness going forward and what each of us might do, starting today, to take good care of our own cognitive capacities. It is exciting that discoveries in the science of brain health could hold great promise for improving the quality of life among older adults while enhancing the prospect that later years can be an era for continued personal growth, productivity and satisfaction. Do Americans think brain health can be improved? Do we use what we know to stay mentally fit? Is there more we can do to keep our brains in the best possible condition? These were the questions that the survey set out to answer in regard to brain health. The results may change how you think about brain health, too. As a starting point, it helps to know what is meant by brain fitness. For the majority, it is defined in terms of functional abilities — what we can do with our brains. For nearly two-thirds of respondents, good brain fitness is defined by abilities such as: Just over one-third (34%) of people interviewed think in terms of the presence or absence of disease as the defining characteristic of brain health. For example, the most frequently mentioned health aspect was not suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (9%). What does “brain fitness” mean? 18% Being alert/sharp 18% Keeping your brain active/Exercising the brain 16% Good mental health/Not senile 14% Good memory/Ability to remember 14% Ability to function normally 11% Ability to think/think clearly 9% Not suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease An overview of the National Brain Health Poll findings follow: 1. We are optimistic about brain health. Nearly nine out of ten people think that it is possible to improve brain fitness. • 53% believe it can improve a lot • 35% believe it can improve a little AND: An overwhelming majority says that thinking abilities should be checked routinely, just like a physical checkup. • 59% say it is very important to get a checkup • 32% say a checkup is somewhat important BUT: Brain health is a low priority compared to other health issues. • Only 3% rate it the most important health subject for people their age • Another 7% consider it the second most important topic 2. Our memory is good today, but we have doubts about tomorrow. We give ourselves high scores on our current brain fitness, regardless of age. • 34% rate their current memory as excellent • 62% rate their current memory as good BUT: The younger we are, the sooner we anticipate that most people will begin to worry about their memory. • People age 42-49 perceive that worries begin at age 52 • People age 50+ identify age 59 as the time when worries typically begin 3. We know about activities that are good for brain health. Most people recognize that many activities are very useful for improving mental fitness. • At least 60% say to avoid tobacco, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, do puzzles, reduce stress, limit alcoholic drinks, spend time with family and friends, and see the doctor regularly AND: Eighty-four percent report that they spend time, usually daily, in activities that are good for brain health. • 68% choose some kind of art or creative project, including 48% who spend time reading • 44% keep physically active • 35% play games and do puzzles • 25% work • 22% spend time with others 4. Doctors are our preferred source for information about brain fitness. More than 70% think that most people their age would go to a medical professional to find out about the brain and how to keep it fit. • 76% of women and 68% of men identify doctors as the best resource for information • People in their 40s and 50s are more likely than those 65+ to choose the Internet for brain health news AND: We encourage others who are concerned about their memory to see a doctor. • More than 74% would advise close friends or family to talk to a doctor BUT: We do not do what we think is best. • Only 58% say they have talked about their memory or brain fitness with anyone • 47% talk with family and 42% turn to friends • Just 37% speak with a medical professional: 13% with a nurse and only 24% with a doctor Most Americans rely on their cars to take them where they need to go each day. We expect that there will be some wear and tear with steady use—and we also expect to get years of good service from our cars. We know it will not happen unless we take care of them. That’s why we schedule regular tune-ups and rotate the tires as needed. It is the same with our brains. We depend on them, and we have to take care of them. Today, brain science has moved light years beyond outdated concepts such as mental decline is inevitable once our brains reach maturity or we are just passive containers for a complex organ. Tremendous advances in laboratory research and demonstration studies point the way to a revolution in what we know about staying mentally fit at every age. What we know and do about brain health varies widely. Most of us have ongoing brain fitness routines. Many seek out the newest information about staying mentally fit. Some of us talk with those we trust about our concerns, and a few worry in private. All of us, however, hope our brains will last as long as our bodies. Sound data exist about the capacity of the brain to maintain and even improve function across the lifespan. The challenge is to make sure that American consumers have easy access to the good news about the latest discoveries in brain fitness and reasonable opportunities to use the information on their own or in facilitated programs. It all depends on reinforcing the critical link that connects research, public policy, programs and personal practice. That’s why the American Society on Aging brain-health poll is so important. Where do we go from here? That’s where the advice of experts comes in. Authorities in brain research and senior services take a close look at what Americans think and do about brain health. Here’s what they have to say: It's Time to Make Brain Health a National Priority • Brain disease is a major national health issue. We should make a firm commitment to brain health. It means investing resources and human capital in education, communication and behavior change about mental fitness. It is the responsibility of our society to each citizen and every bit as urgent as taking care of heart health. • Future research should examine the relationship between lifestyle and brain fitness. Longitudinal studies are needed to map what can be done over the course of the lifespan to nurture the brain so that adults can approach their later years with confidence in their mental abilities. • Personal brain-health programs should begin early in life and continue across the lifespan. We have enough information today to prescribe ways of nurturing the brain before birth and through the early years of childhood to maximize mental fitness through adulthood. Lost opportunities are expensive for the individual and society as a whole. • A sea change in senior services is fast approaching with the aging of the baby boomer generation. Our society is about to experience a major spike in the number of people age 65 and older. Improvements in technology and universal design are removing barriers to independence and opening possibilities for productive, active living well into retirement. The demand for more and better services, including those that support mental fitness throughout the lifespan, is likely to increase exponentially. • Doctors need continuing-education programs about brain fitness. Although consumers regularly mine the Internet and other media, they turn to medical professionals when they want to know what to do about their brain health. As the front line for public knowledge about maintaining brain health, doctors should have ongoing access to the latest news about brain capacity and information on how best to prescribe practical approaches that maximize mental fitness. • Social policy and social services must keep pace with developments in brain science. In the same way that consumers should “break a mental sweat” by challenging their brains with new learning, so, too, it is imperative that community programs incorporate the latest findings into innovative activities and resources accessible wherever people live. Program planners have a special responsibility to model positive brain-health behaviors by questioning old paradigms and incorporating current information into the design of services that they offer. There’s Good News from Brain Research • With good care, a normal brain can stay healthy and active just as long as the rest of the body. For some individuals, optimal functioning may be impeded by the presence of organic brain disease or the side effects of clinical interventions prescribed to treat medical conditions. Most people can look forward to enjoying a level of mental fitness that keeps pace with physical fitness if they regularly practice appropriate activities. • The discovery of two keys to brain capacity has fundamentally changed our understanding of brain fitness. Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to change in response to the stimulation of learning and experience. Neurogenesis is the addition of new brain cells, or neurons, that can expand function or restore abilities diminished by disease and disuse. To activate these vital functions, people need to be in enriched environments that include opportunities for socialization, mental stimulation and physical activity. • Cross-training for the brain should be routine. A single activity, no matter how challenging, is not sufficient to sustain the kind of mental acuity that virtually everyone can achieve. For example, reading or doing crossword puzzles, though each is good on its own, offers only partial benefits unless it is part of a comprehensive program for long-term brain health. We now know that brain fitness depends on combining a variety of activities that differ in frequency, intensity and variety. • Physical workouts nurture the brain as well as the body. It is well understood that blood flow stimulated by exercise is good for the heart, lungs and muscles. Now we know that it is beneficial for the brain as well. People reluctant to commit to a regular program of physical activity may be motivated when they understand how it helps them to stay sharp mentally. • The results of brain workouts are long-lasting. Research indicates that gains from memory training interventions among people with normal, age-related cognitive changes can last for up to five years. Although specialized approaches are necessary for people with organic impairments, the potential for maintaining and improving function across the general population is impressive and encouraging. Brain Fitness Activities Should Be Everywhere • Pursuing brain health should take place at home and in the community. Engaging in solo projects customized to reflect personal interests gives great flexibility to options that can be incorporated into one's home life. Crafts, reading, writing, playing music and doing puzzles appeal to many people. A similarly valuable array of possibilities is available in communal environments such as senior centers and religious and charitable organizations. • Brain fitness is an everyday responsibility. Daily routines should include diversity and ongoing challenge to achieve and sustain the full potential of brain fitness over the lifespan. Some of our mental stretching can be achieved as an adjunct to activities that are part of our work or leisure routines. A thoughtful, proactive approach is essential to assure that we cover our mental-fitness bases every day. • Mental fitness activities belong in every type of senior housing. On-site resources and programs should be titrated to match the range of settings and populations, which may extend from complete independence to maximum support with activities of daily living. Especially when an individual moves into a new residential environment, services that offer appropriate approaches to brain fitness contribute to a smooth transition and promote positive interpersonal engagement. • Creative community projects are a rich source of mental challenge. Senior theater productions, which can be written, performed and directed by older adults, stimulate brain health on multiple levels. Bands and orchestras offer similar opportunities for mental challenge combined with social interaction. • Lifelong learning programs are ideal venues for brain fitness activities. Cognitive fitness is built into the very nature of courses for older learners organized on college campuses. The latest discoveries in brain science should inform how lifelong learning programs are structured in order to maximize benefits to the brain. Established programs can enrich opportunities by adding formal components that translate current research into practical applications and teach memory training techniques.

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