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Brain Awareness Month | It’s Not Just Alzheimer’s

Brain Awareness Month is this June, and while the emphasis is on raising awareness for Alzheimer’s and dementia, it’s important to note overall brain health and how we can take preventative actions.

When we think of mental health, we might get so focused on the brain that we forget external factors and how we take care of our bodies can be just as important as the chemical makeup of our brain.

Below we take a look at the different factors that go into helping to shape a healthier brain. 

Brain Awareness Month | Protecting Against Depression and Anxiety

Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, engaging in social activity, and fueling your mind with ongoing education and stimulating activities may help to slow cognitive decline over time.

Plus, doing these things in general help us feel good, and can combat feelings of depression and anxiety

The World Health Organization (WHO) summarizes a list of protective factors that go towards preventing mental illnesses, such as:

  • Adaptability
  • Autonomy
  • Early cognitive stimulation
  • Exercise feelings of security 
  • Feelings of mastery and control
  • Good parenting
  • Literacy
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Stress management

Different types of interventions have been successful to different degrees in improving the mental health of older populations, including:

  • exercise
  • improving social support through befriending
  • patient education among chronically ill elderly and their caregivers
  • early screening
  • interventions in primary care
  • programs using life review techniques

According to the Mental Health Foundation, other preventions include primary, secondary, and tertiary interventions.

Primary interventions are proactive measures that aim to stop mental health issues before they start, like anti-stigma campaigns.

Secondary interventions include supporting those who may be at an increased risk of having a mental illness, also known as targeted prevention. This includes therapy and programs to help those who’ve experienced some kind of trauma.

Finally, tertiary interventions include treatment plans to help those struggling with specific illnesses. 

Head Trauma and Brain Injuries

Brain Awareness Month also forces us to look at varying conditions, including head trauma and brain injuries.

These injuries affect our mental health drastically, especially if they’re associated with a traumatic event.

The treatment plan after getting a concussion may involve reducing screen time, which, especially during these times, can greatly cut off communication and our perhaps only social outlet.

It can be difficult to find other outlets, especially if gaming, binge-watching, and texting friends were important coping tools when faced with anxiety or depression. 

Reading real, physical books personally helps me, and writing in journals with a favorite pen. 

Studies show that hands-on learning, rather than simply listening or watching something, can help us understand and learn better, too.

For example, interviews with teachers found that students enjoyed “doing something” compared to listening to a lecture, and that a hands-on approach to problem-solving helped them better understand math, which caused them to feel less anxious.

This study also found that the participants’ anxiety was reduced when they worked in groups to solve math problems. 

Art therapy is another hands-on tool that allows patients to relax their mind by focusing on one specific task. It has also been known to be helpful for dementia patients.

These patients who participated actively in art therapy sessions allowed themselves to be drawn in by the need for human companionship and by various colors and media forms.

They expressed themselves despite any increasing confusion and loss of cognitive skills. As they lost motivation, they were willing to be prompted to continue expressing themselves, to engage with the colors.

By learning something new, we can expand the connections in our brain, which is an amazing organ on its own, given its neuroplasticity and ability to make new connections, regardless of age.

Brain Awareness Month | Brain Care and Alzheimer’s

Taking care of our brain is incredibly crucial to our overall health. Worldwide, 50 million people are living with dementia.

Alzheimer’s alone kills more people than those with breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

On average, a person living with Alzheimer’s disease lives 4 to 8 years after diagnosis, but some patients can live up to 20 years with the disease.

Currently, new treatments are on the horizon for Alzheimer’s patients, though they are controversial.

A recently FDA-approved drug Aduhelm (aducanumab) aims to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Although the data around this drug are complicated with respect to its clinical benefits, the FDA has determined that there is substantial evidence that it reduces amyloid beta plaques in the brain.

This reduction in these plaques is reasonably likely to predict important benefits to patients. As a result of FDA’s approval of Aduhelm, patients living with Alzheimer’s disease have a new treatment to help combat this disease. 

Still, Alzheimer’s, like many mental illnesses, does not have a cure—especially one that works for everyone. That’s why taking care of our brains each day at a preventative level can have a tremendous impact on the health of our brains over time.

Caregiving for Those With Brain Disease and Disorders

With Brain Awareness Month focusing on new treatment therapies, innovative research, and education around Alzheimer’s, we should make sure to pay tribute to caregivers of those who witnessed a loved one suffering from this disease.

In 2020, caregivers of people living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias provided an estimated 15.3 billion hours of unpaid care, a contribution to the US that valued at more than $256.7 billion.

It isn’t easy juggling appointments, treatments, care, and more. In fact, it may contribute to stress and depression.

Learning to balance caregiving with self-care is not easy, but by working actively with a therapist, joining group therapy, and/or seeking help from a psychiatrist, there are ways to learn how to tailor the love we send out to the world back onto ourselves. 

Even if you aren’t at a higher risk for getting a disease like Alzheimer’s, or don’t struggle with a mental illness (but know loved ones who do), there are plenty of ways to participate and help those who are struggling.

For example, the Alzheimer’s Association has plenty of fundraising events that you can contribute to, anywhere from sports and hobbies to attending parties and events.

You can create your own fundraising team or share your own, individual story via social media.

Caregivers and Mental Health

Brain Awareness Month is a fantastic opportunity to better understand and learn more about the varying degrees to which conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia can affect us.

It also brings to light the different preventative actions we can take to decrease our risk for these mental illnesses over time.

For caregivers, it is crucial to consider their own mental health struggles as well.

With so much time and attention put on others suffering from a devastating disease, it can be easy to forget our own needs and the struggles we face regardless of the position we are in.

Recognizing the different tools to help prevent and to treat mental health conditions will continue to shed a light on just how important brain health is to our overall health. 

The more we can aim to take preventative action, the less we are to be at risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, depression, and anxiety.

Let’s slow the rate of cognitive decline together and take better care of our brains, regardless of whether or not we suffer from a particular disease or condition.

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Samantha Mineroff

Samantha Mineroff is a writer, mental health advocate, and aspiring author. In 2018, her paper, “The Rhetoric of Major Depressive Disorder: Performativity and Intra-activity of Emotions in Major Depression” won best seminar paper award at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. At the Poetics And Linguistics Association (PALA) Conference in 2019, she went to The University of Liverpool to present her paper “An Application of Scripts, Schemas, and Negative Accommodation Theory in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.” She currently works as a marketing writer for clinical research. She enjoys live jazz, good conversation, and writing letters. You can reach her at sammineroff@gmail.com