I don’t watch much TV, and when I do, I rarely pay attention to commercials. But a new ad caught my eye the other day: in it, a middle-aged accountant talks frankly about his passion for his work. Numbers, he says, just come naturally to him, and he feels like his brain is firing on all cylinders when he’s working at something he loves. Then, the CEO of AARP walks into the frame and announces a new website featuring quizzes, games, and other applications designed to promote the brain health of older Americans.
Having spent a good portion of my career working to make brain health as well-known a term as heart health, I was thrilled to hear the phrase used on national television by such a large and reputable organization. But now that we’re finally talking about brain health, it is important that we know just what it is we are talking about.
The health of our brains, like the health of our bodies, impacts our enjoyment and quality of life in many ways. When our brains are healthy we’re able to perform tasks of daily living and intellectual pursuits with ease and pleasure. We don’t feel stressed or tired and we can concentrate well. Like the gentleman in the commercial, we can enjoy how well our brains are working for us.
“Neuroscience discoveries are helping us to learn more about how to optimize brain recovery restoration and optimize functioning.”
Through our research we are learning more about how many factors—such as sleep, nutrition, exercise, stress levels, and illness—impact our individual brain health. We’re also studying how we may be able to help people postpone or hopefully avoid conditions that threaten their brain health and wellness, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Here are four questions and answers that may help you begin to understand more about the emerging field of brain health.
What is Brain Health?
Because our brain is the operating system for our entire body, brain health is a term that encompasses how our brains and our bodies work together to keep us healthy. The brain and nervous system are closely linked to our body and important bodily systems: cardiovascular, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, immune, hormonal, and others. These relationships are a two-way street that helps determine our optimal cognitive performance and brain-body balance. We hope that further understanding the brain-body relationship will ultimately help us earlier identify and prevent disease. The study of this interplay is what we are referring to when we talk about brain health.
Our ultimate goal as researchers and practitioners is to learn in order to help people understand and improve their brain function, capacity, and recovery in their daily lives—and also find ways to best manage and prevent brain disorders such as dementia, stroke, or Parkinson’s disease.
What is Neurocapacity?
Neurocapacity is our moment-to-moment changing state and capacity to perform the various cognitive functions we do every day. These include all areas of cognition—such as attention, memory, and decision-making—and all are linked to our physical functioning.
Think of your neurocapacity as if it were a cellphone: like your smart phone, your brain can only run for so long without being recharged, and not all phones—or brains—are the same. Like phones, we cannot operate at 100 percent all of the time, which is why we need to sleep well, eat well, relax, and take other measures to recover from fatigue. We must recharge, bringing ourselves back up to capacity so that we may function at our best. The restorative capacity of the brain is critical to optimizing cognitive functioning as well as improving the health of the entire body system. Remember, our brains direct the functioning of our bodies via the nervous system and we must assist the brain in its work through self-care. Neuroscience discoveries are helping us to learn more about how to optimize brain recovery restoration and optimize functioning.
How Should We Study Brain Health?
We should integrate multiple modalities and approaches from different areas of science. We must realize that the brain not only controls our bodies, but serves as the central command unit of an unbelievably complex closed-loop and linked system. Because the brain does many things and is influenced by many things, we should examine as many of these areas as we can to better understand how the brain works.
Take sleep, for example: the more we study sleep, the more we learn about the key role that it plays in keeping our brain functioning at its peak, and how lack of sleep can affect our neurocapacity. To study the brain is to examine everything we do, which is why this thrilling field has attracted such diverse researchers and practitioners from so many areas of science.
How Would a Better Understanding of Brain Health Impact Me?
This, really, is the key question. No field of scientific inquiry, no matter how fascinating, will have much appeal if we cannot see how it can improve our lives. A better understanding of brain health is likely to have a tremendous impact on all of us.
With a better understanding of brain health, we can hone in on the data that most influences our individual neurocapacity. Then, we can search for clues about how our brains and bodies are working together and use this information to improve our wellness and functioning.
Some of us sport wearable devices that track our heart rate or count our steps, but imagine a next generation of wearable sensors—or even simple implantable sensors—that more precisely and meaningfully measure hydration, nutrition, stress, sleep, inflammation, cognitive function, and other key brain health variables. Having this information and awareness could help us see connections between these factors and could potentially lead to earlier detection of warning signs allowing for earlier diagnosis, intervention, and improved prevention efforts.
These insights, however, are only the first step. The more we know about brain health, the more likely it is we might be able to deliver not only a better understanding of how the brain works but also of how your individual brain works. Eventually we want to offer personalized analyses to help each one of us improve and optimize our own neurocapacity. Here’s an example: your individual data might show that based on your specific biological needs, you function at your very best when you get at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, eat a certain food, or might show that you are most susceptible to mental fatigue during certain times or under certain physiologic conditions. Knowing these things, you might decide to change your bedtime, exercise more, or limit yourself to only one glass of wine. This awareness might help you better plan your day (and life!) to ensure you get the rest and recovery you need to be your best cognitively and physiologically every day.
Having wearable sensors to measure brain function and the factors that influence it may sound like science fiction. But my colleagues and I are working on answering all of these questions, as well as developing a contextual framework to help us better understand our own individual brain function. Of course, any attempt to comprehend the complexities of the human brain is a monumental undertaking. And every monumental undertaking always begins the same way, with curious people asking the right questions. Hopefully, these four are a good place to start.
This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.