Brain Health - The Bridge To Living Optimally (Part 1)
What is brain health?
What does it mean to have good brain health?
What does good health brain mean to you?
What can you do now to have good brain health?
This is a two-part series that explores brain health.
Not Just reacting
If we sprain our ankle, we seek medical help immediately. If we feel lethargic from a bout of flu, we take medication to numb the symptoms. If we feel unwell and do not know the reason behind it, we seek medical attention. If we are diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease, understandably we react in shock, and beg for a miraculous cure. What do these scenarios tell us?
Firstly, humans are very reactive creatures. We pay attention to things that we can see or feel; hence we attend to ourselves when we are physically hurt or in pain, and to others who are in the same situation. Of course, this makes a lot of sense; but how about things we cannot see? Just because we cannot see or feel (about a physical sensation) does not mean that everything is alright. Secondly, our usual “wait and see” mentality tells us to only “fix it” after the problem can be seen or felt, but alas, it would be too late.
Take the onset of Type 2 diabetes for example. The condition does not occur overnight. The sufferer would have led an unhealthy lifestyle for many years before developing the condition. This not only results in a huge decrease in his quality of life, but affects the people close him. With this condition becoming rampant (in Singapore for example, over 400,000 people are now living with diabetes, and has the second highest rate of diabetes in the world), the nation’s healthcare infrastructure has come under tremendous strain. Not only is the system unsustainable to support the needs of those affected by preventable illnesses (such as diabetes), its ability to serve those affected by urgent and unexpected medical needs (medical emergencies) is also affected.
Another preventable condition that is becoming a national concern is dementia. Like diabetes, it is also debilitating. First, the patient experiences a decline in memory which also engenders a sense of frustration; then he loses all the other cognitive functions that affect his ability to go about life independently. The development of the disease is insidious, i.e., slowly and without any signs. By the time visible symptoms start to appear, many years or even decades would have passed and it would be too late to reverse the ravages of dementia. The rates of dementia are set to rise globally and the number of people living with dementia is expected to double by 2030 in Singapore.
Another area of health which is not only overlooked and neglected, but relegated to something of little significance is our emotions. This is reflected in many Asian cultures whereby emotions or feelings are rarely revealed or discussed, and expressing how one feels can often be interpreted as a sign of weakness. This neglect is harmful, as the effects could precipitate mental conditions such as depression, which in turn also harms the body such as weakening the immune system.
A Mental Health Study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2010 concluded that 9.3% of Singapore Residents would have at least one mood or anxiety disorder at some point of their adult lifetime, with Major Depressive Disorder and Obsession Compulsive Disorder being the most common. Another study, Mental Health Literacy Study, also conducted by IMH, showed widespread stigma towards individuals with mental health conditions which could therefore hinder them from seeking treatment.
It is human to experience a wide range of emotions, some positive ones such as joy, warmth and gratitude, and some negative ones such as anger, envy and guilt. In fact, all humans experience positive and negative emotions from moment to moment, and this is normal. However, when the experience of negative emotions becomes long standing, such as depression and chronic stress, our overall health will be adversely affected, and our quality of life deteriorates significantly. How much do we understand ourselves? And how prepared and equipped are we to manage negative emotions when they set upon us?
Living Life Optimally
All three of the above examples—diabetes, dementia and emotional afflictions all share something in common: They evince a life that is not functioning optimally. Living life optimally and to the fullest means having the best quality of life. That in turn means being independent as much as one can, without encumbering loved ones and the healthcare infrastructure. The average life span increasing—wouldn’t it be better if we can spend those years well than in misery? Of course, attaining the ability to live life optimally and to the fullest is no easy task—it requires preparation, the earlier the better. In matters pertaining to health, our guiding principle should not be to cross the bridge when we come to it; we should start building the bridge now. This is a worthy investment.
So for each of the conditions that we discussed earlier, and for many others, we ask: Could anything be done to reduce the risk factors, increase the protective factors and therefore delay the onset of the disease/condition from the outset?
What Has Brain Health Got to Do with All These
Individuals who are health conscious go for yearly medical health checks and spend thousands on tests which may or may not be necessary. Yet, our brain, the embodiment of life, has managed to escape scrutiny and attention. Often, only when symptoms or occurrence of brain-related conditions such as stroke, brain injury and dementia set in that we begin to pay attention to the brain. The brain is not directly visible to us, unlike say, a paunch, a skin rash, or blurred vision. Thus, it is most often also neglected until too late.
The brain is the most crucial part of what makes us who we are; it not only supports all our bodily functions and all our daily activities but just as importantly, helps us understand ourselves, connect with other people and make sense of the world. The brain is responsible for our physical, cognitive and emotional functioning; a healthy brain is therefore necessary for one to function optimally and live life to the fullest. It will also enable us to achieve peak brain performance when we tap into its potential.
Back to the question: “If I have diabetes, what has it got to do with my brain or brain health? And what have emotions got to do with brain health?”
Everything. Consider this interesting relationship:
- When brain health is at its optimal, there would be positive shifts in your well-being—body, cognition, emotion and social. This is not the end.
- The well-being attained in these areas—body, cognition, emotion and social—would in turn keep the brain healthy.
Simply put, the benefits perpetuate themselves in a circular fashion. So no matter where you start—whether it’s (1) taking care of the brain; or (2) taking care of your body, cognition, emotion or social well-being or even doing both at the same time, you are on the path of attaining holistic well-being.
The Brain Health Triangle
This connection can further be understood this way. When we are overcome by emotional difficulties such as depression or face impaired cognitive abilities such as a reduced memory, our brain health is affected. Similarly, when we do not take care of our body or worse, abusing it (whether unknowingly or deliberately), we are directly and indirectly adversely impacting our brain health. A pictorial way to illustrate this relationship is the Brain Health Triangle.
Dave the Deskbound Worker
Since entering the workforce, Dave has been leading a sedentary lifestyle. His work is deskbound. After work, he is not physically active and eats out almost daily. He has become overweight and feels lethargic and devoid of energy. Recently, he has also been facing increasing stress due to work demands, leaving him feeling frustrated on most days. Moreover, his ability to focus has reduced and he is not as attentive as before. All these issues lead him to think lowly of himself which in turn affects his social life.
Dave is a typical worker in the modern society who has been neglecting his brain health. If he continues with this lifestyle, it is likely that health issues will surface in years to come. There are also others who, despite aware that they are leading an unhealthy lifestyle, choose to ignore and avoid the issues altogether for reasons only they know.
So What Next?
Instead of a passive “wait and see” approach to problems and health-related issues, Dave needs a proactive, preventive and action-oriented way to life. In the next issue, we will investigate in greater detail the three components of brain health. We will explore how and what Dave can do to reverse and turn his lifestyle around to achieve optimal brain health. We will also explore what it means for Dave—prior to and after embarking on the journey to achieving better brain health. We will also look at some scientific approaches that everyone can adopt to achieve optimal brain health. So watch this space!