19 September 2018 | by Kimberley WIlson
“Open the bonnet and tell me how you’d check that the engine has sufficient oil.”
This kind of ‘show me, tell me’ vehicle safety question will be familiar to anyone who has taken a driving test in the last 10 years.
To answer them learners must acquire the bare minimum of car maintenance knowledge to ensure driver safety.
Similarly, if you purchase anything, from flat pack furniture to a new duvet, it comes enclosed with care instructions; recommendations for what you should do to keep your item in peak condition.
This is the same with the body too - ask most people what they should do to look after their hearts and the majority can reel off at least one piece of evidence-based lifestyle advice, like enjoying regular physical activity or quitting smoking.
But what about the brain? How should we take care of it?
Strangely, the brain, crucial to every aspect of our existence, rarely features in public health promotions despite good evidence suggesting that lifestyle interventions can promote and protect brain health.
For example, dietary interventions such as the MIND diet (a modified Mediterranean-style eating pattern) have been shown to be effective at reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk.
This is particularly valuable in light of reports that sporadic (i.e. not linked to genetic factors) dementia is on the rise.
In its guidance published in 2016, Public Health England agree that ‘dementia is not an inevitable part of aging’ but rather than delivering that information to the public at large, the guidance urges health professionals to encourage patients to make lifestyle changes from midlife.
This assumes that enough people will have contact with primary care services to receive this information, and that GPs will have enough time in a consultation to deliver it. We also know that, when it comes to protecting long-term brain health, the earlier you start those protective habits the better.
The evidence of the protective and preventative role of physical activity for depression risk is robust and compelling. Indeed, a new clinical handbook (Exercise-Based Interventions for Mental Illness) outlines the research justification, rational and process for implementing exercise as treatment for psychological disorder.
There is an urgent need to understand and address the social factors contributing to the rise in depressive illness but we should also be making the public aware of the lifestyle-factors that can contribute to or protect from psychological and neurological disorders.
It is my experience that people are interested. My public talks on practical, low-cost and evidence-based ways to look after your brain are always received with enthusiasm and positive action.
Even those unmoved by or uninterested in NHS exercise recommendations for physical health have often experienced psychological distress themselves or seen a parent suffer with dementia and want to know what (even limited) power they might have to improve the situation.
Without a proactive Public Health approach to brain-care we risk putting ourselves in a vulnerable position with insufficient social or financial resources to hold back the rising tide of chronic physical and psychological illness.
My next ‘How to Build a Healthy Brain’ talk takes place in November at the BPS London office.
It's open to the public and provides an overview of the whys and hows of brain health.
It’s a drop in the ocean but we have to start somewhere.
How to Build a Healthy Brain
Saturday 17th November 2018
BPS London Office