How does the brain work?
The brain is the central organ of the body. It is the “central station” that organizes and controls everything that happens in the body, from sensory experiences to decision making. As the main control system, our brains regulate our energy, productivity, emotions, creativity, social relationships and above all, health, performance and overall well-being. Our brains work nonstop — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for our entire lives.
Old paradigms depicted brain health as predetermined by our innate biology and genetic make-up. This meant that those of us born with “good” biology and genes would be able to enjoy good brain health, while those of us less fortunate would be destined to suffer from brain disease. Luckily, advances in research over the past decade have shown that although we are all born with a particular genetic background, genes are not our destiny. Instead, our life experiences and our lifestyle choices can change both how our genes are expressed and how our brain can function.
The term “neuroplasticity” encapsulates the notion that our brains are malleable, not just when we are young, but across all stages of life. Everything that we think, feel, and do as we interact with our environment – from the things we eat, to our level of activity, and interactions with others – are actively changing our brains. We now know that things that are within our control – such as a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, prioritizing sleep, managing stress well, being connected within supportive social networks – can form new brain connections or repair brain networks that may have been damaged through injury. Furthermore, the changes that we make to our own lifestyles and our environments may not only affect our own health, but may impact the brain health of our offspring.
In sum, genetic variation is only one part of the picture. Our behaviors and environment can offset any risk we may experience due to genetic factors. Think of genes as the clay – and our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and environment as the factors that mold it.
And the amazing thing about our brain is that it continues to grow and change throughout our lifetime! We can’t start too early or too late. The ability to grow and strengthen connections in our brains allows us to stay sharp and engaged no matter the age.
What is brain health?
Brain health is an exciting new field of research and applied science that has the potential to impact all of us! Our working definition of brain health includes not only the physiological and metabolic health of the brain as an organ, but the dynamic interaction between the brain, mind, body, and environment. This includes our ability to concentrate, remember, communicate, learn, and maintain a clear, active mind, as well as to engage with the outer world.
Why is brain health important?
Brain health impacts virtually every aspect of our lives, from our physical health and functioning to our emotional health to our relationships with others and how we are able to perform in our professional and/or our academic careers. A healthy brain is crucial to overall well-being.
Improved brain health has many benefits for both individuals and for communities. At the community level, improved brain health can lead to:
- Improved health and reduced medical costs
- Lower rates of depression and anxiety disorders leading to reduced loss of productivity
- Better school attendance rates, graduation rates, and lower dropout rates
- Decreased prevalence of costly social problems, including crime and drug and alcohol misuse
- Decreased overall stress levels
- Decreased senior health care costs due to decrease in age-related cognitive decline
These are just a few of the benefits we believe communities can expect from focusing on improving brain health.
What is brain disability?
Disability – defined as any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them – currently affects over 1 in 4 of adults in the United States. In 2006, disability-associated expenses accounted for 26.7% of all health care expenditures for American adults, totaling $397.8 billion. By 2030, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that half of the world-wide economic impact of disability will be due specifically to brain-related disability.
Brain health disability may be present at birth, (as is the case with Down syndrome and Duchenne muscular dystrophy), associated with developmental conditions that become apparent during childhood (such as autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, ADHD), or progressive throughout adulthood and aging (like many cases of multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia) – necessitating a comprehensive approach to brain health research across the lifespan.
Brain health disability may also follow acquired brain illness and injuries, such as stroke and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
What are some current brain health statistics?
Every four minutes, someone dies of a stroke – resulting in 795,000 U.S. deaths each year. From 2006 to 2014, the number of traumatic brain injury (TBI)-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths increased by 53%. In 2014, an average of 155 people in the United States died each day from injuries that include a TBI.
The current state of mental health research is equally wanting. Today, in contrast to steadily decreasing mortality rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer, there is no evidence for reduced morbidity or mortality from any mental illness (defined as all mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders). Currently, one in five U.S. adults (46.6 million in 2017) lives with a mental illness (e.g., depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia).
Addiction to drugs or alcohol (also classified as a mental illness) is a particular area of concern. In 2014, 20.2 million U.S. adults had a substance use disorder and 7.9 million had both a substance use disorder and another mental illness. Two years prior, the World Health Organization reported that alcohol misuse was the fifth leading risk factor for premature death and disability; among people between the ages of 15 and 49, it was the first. It’s estimated that substance abuse costs the nation more than $740 billion annually in expenses related to crime, lost work productivity, and health care.
Schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, dementia, alcohol dependence and other mental, neurological, and substance-use disorders currently constitute 13% of the global burden of disease, surpassing both cardiovascular disease and cancer. Depression alone is the third leading contributor to the global disease burden; alcohol and illicit drug use account for more than 5%. Every seven seconds, someone develops dementia, costing the world up to $609 billion a year.
The BHI plans to address this brain health crisis through pioneering global work, as individuals worldwide are struggling with the devastating effects of impaired brain health. Brain illnesses were a leading cause of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) internationally in 2016. Emerging data reports from the Global Burden of Disease study, anticipated to be released near the end of 2023, indicate that brain illnesses accounted for the greatest proportion of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) in 2021.