Maverick Life

WELLNESS OP-ED

Investing in improved brain health is critical for a future-proof society

Investing in improved brain health is critical for a future-proof society
Initiatives at individual and collective levels are crucial to support brain health through lifestyle changes and brain skills training, writes the author. (Image: Alina Grubnyak / Unsplash)

Our world is facing what looks like multiple seemingly unsolvable and unstoppable crises; at the same time, we are vulnerable to multiple stressors that affect the brain and our ability to think, adapt, and create. Investing in our brain health is an essential part of a strategic and effective response.

Current headlines are dominated by stories of seemingly inescapable doom with occasional opportunities for escape. From global warming to the ubiquity of artificial intelligence, we are often left feeling anxious and vulnerable.

To respond to and deal with crises, we should be able to tap into our creative and critical thinking. And for this to happen, we need a healthy brain.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “optimising brain health … can lead to a wide array of benefits for the individual and society”.

The brain is remarkable in its capability. It controls movement, speech, and our reaction to pain or love (sometimes inexpertly). It is essential for memory and imagination.

It also plays a role in the regulation of the most vital of functions, the rhythm of our hearts and breath.

The brain consists of grey matter which is primarily composed of brain cells and white matter which consists of connections between different parts of the brain. This develops as we grow, and throughout life as we learn, adapt, and develop; the process is called plasticity.

Given its importance, the brain has three layers of protection and a complex network of blood vessels to keep it nourished and healthy. Even with this well-designed system of protection, this integral organ is also prone to illnesses, many of which are increasing globally, such as stroke, epilepsy, infectious diseases, dementia, and mental illnesses.

A paper titled The Worldwide Costs of Dementia in 2019 published in 2019 explained that that year, dementia alone cost economies $1.3-trillion. Neurological illness is reported to affect over three billion people worldwide.

Even without an illness affecting the brain, brain skills such as memory, thinking, creativity, and focus are affected by lifestyle factors such as diet, pollution, social media, and smoking amongst many others.

These are the skills we need to live healthy and fulfilling lives and to respond to the challenges we may face.

With this in mind, a strategic response that includes brain health is vital.

What is brain health?

The WHO describes brain health “as the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioural and motor domains, allowing a person to realise their full potential over the life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders.”

Key in this description is the importance of brain function to optimise potential and consider different aspects to support a healthy brain across the course of one’s life.

A collective response from individuals, organisations, and national governments is required to support brain health. Initiatives would include focusing on strategies to prevent illnesses, supporting healthier lifestyles, and brain skills training.

There are several initiatives in Europe and the US to support brain health which often focus on illness management, but there is an incredible opportunity to focus on brain skills, optimise brain function, and harness the incredible potential of the brain.

At an individual level, adopting healthy lifestyle habits might reduce the risk of illnesses such as dementia stroke, mental illness, hypertension, and diabetes. Hypertension and diabetes are both risk factors for dementia.

Healthier diets, exercise, adequate sleep, and avoiding smoking all help in keeping the brain healthy. Beyond this, one should include practical brain skills training prioritising what you need to heal, succeed, or thrive; skills or habits rooted in calm, focus, creativity, and critical thinking. For example, meditation would be a useful practice to optimise calm and support managing daily stressors; some studies have also shown that meditation can improve creativity.

A 2021 survey indicated that South Africans were amongst the most distressed in the world and over 70% reported that they were unable to cope.

Mental health issues alone are expected to cost the South African economy over one hundred and sixty billion rands a year. Mental illness has an impact on impact on cognitive function, productivity, relationships, innovation, and days off work potentially causing significant loss in economic output worldwide.

This is not a problem that can be ignored.

Initiatives such as individual wellness days, or mindfulness sessions are helpful, particularly in giving employees the resources they might need to look after themselves.

In this age of multiple crises, a visionary government that invests in a brain health ecosystem, identifies priorities, and develops systematic strategies will have an advantage in the present and the future.

Priorities to consider in South Africa are ensuring food security — with access to healthy food and restricting access to harmful ultra-processed food, responding effectively to possible social media addiction, and reducing trauma-related head injuries.

This approach could include art-based approaches, indigenous knowledge systems, and community initiatives along with medical prevention and treatment. DM

Dr Kirti Ranchod is a neurologist, founder of Memorability.co, co-founder and chair of the African Brain Health Network, and Global Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health. She has served on the board of Alzheimer’s South Africa. She has extensive clinical experience in medicine and neurology.

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