What is Brain Health?: Why is it Important?

The human brain is the command center of the human body. It controls our thoughts and feelings, our ability to learn and remember, the way we move and talk, as well as automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate and digestion, for example. Think of the brain as a central computer whose mission is to control all our body's systems and functions.

What is brain health?

Good brain health is more than just the absence of disease; it also includes positive mental health, effective overall cognitive functioning, resilience, and a sense of well-being that we need to manage daily stress, make the most of our abilities, work productively and contribute to our communities.

Why is brain health important?

Achieving optimal brain health can sometimes be an elusive goal. In fact, McKinsey estimates that around 50% of the American population will experience a mental or neurological health condition in their lifetime. These may range from brief, mild mood disturbances that resolve spontaneously, to more serious, chronic and debilitating conditions, particularly when undiagnosed and untreated. The most common brain disorders worldwide include tension-type headaches, migraines, anxiety and depressive disorders.

The first symptoms of most mental disorders appear as early as age 14 and reach their peak around age 20 in 90% of cases. This trend is unique: all other chronic medical conditions typically hit their apex in the 50s. Left untreated, mental disorders and addictions can lead to an increased risk of lifelong disability. This means that older people face an enormous burden of invalidity, compounded by age-related complications. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are therefore essential to add years to life, and life to years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a global surge in brain health disorders, particularly anxiety and depression, by up to 30%.

Brain health conditions cause more disability than anything else: globally they account for 20% of all days lived in suboptimal health, according to McKinsey. They can also shorten lifespans: on average people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia die 10 to 15 years earlier than those without serious mental illness.

What are the risk factors for developing a brain health condition?

Anyone can be affected by a brain health condition. Factors such as age, social context (e.g., trauma, poverty, discrimination or stress at work) and genetics increase the risk and severity of symptoms. Exposure to traumatic events is well known to be associated with a host of brain health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Age is a key factor when it comes to mental health. Age and mental health are inversely correlated [youth suffer more severe mental distress]. Most recently, youth across the globe are experiencing an alarming surge of psychological distress, mental health dysfunction and substance abuse. A global survey conducted by the McKinsey Health Institute found that Generation Z rated their mental health as worse than their physical, social or spiritual health, and were 3 times more likely than baby boomers to report poor mental health. These results could be explained by Generation Z's stage of development, its degree of involvement in healthcare, its behavior within the family and society, and its interactions with social media and technology.

What can I do to keep my brain healthy?

Brain health is deeply connected to physical health [mind-body connection] and social health [the power of weak ties]. A healthy body protects a healthy mind. Small lifestyle changes can have significant positive effects, such as regular exercise, sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, stress management and strong social ties (real connections, not friends on social networks), all of which help to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

What can society do to help improve brain health?

Despite its prevalence, brain health remains one of the most neglected and under-resourced health problems. For example, a WHO report estimates that high-income countries devote no more than 4% of their health budgets to mental health, compared with 1% in low-income countries. Investment in brain health research is also insufficient.

And yet, evidence suggests that many conditions are both preventable and treatable. A more widespread implementation of proven strategies could reduce the global burden of mental illness by almost half. For example, research has shown that every dollar invested in large-scale treatment of depression and anxiety disorders translates into health and productivity gains of the order of $4 to $5 (The Lancet). By allocating sufficient resources to evidence-based prevention strategies and early treatment, we can significantly reduce the burden on individuals and society.

How can A.I. improve mental health care?

Given concerns about the deterioration of mental health worldwide, and the increasing adoption of A.I. technology in many areas of healthcare, it's not surprising that attempts have been made to use A.I. in the battle against mental illness.

To date, A.I. has proved helpful in diagnosing a variety of mental disorders, in ways often inacessible to human therapists. For instance, it is capable of rapidly accessing relevant information about a patient from various sources (medical records, social media posts, internet searches, wearable devices, etc.). By spotting certain patterns in the data, it can help diagnose mental illnesses.

Final thoughts

Maintaining good brain health is a lifelong pursuit.

Brain health is one of our most precious assets, as it contributes to our well-being and productivity. Preserving our brain's functional capacities is crucial in the long term: better cognitive function, greater emotional well-being, enhanced overall quality of life, and greater social cohesion within our communities.

Raising public awareness of the importance of brain health and developing and implementing strategies to promote and preserve it, are key to building a healthier, happier future for the generations to come.

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