Susan A. Masino, the Vernon Roosa Professor of Applied Science at Trinity College, studies links among metabolism, brain activity, and behavior.
Brain disorders are expensive, and their costs to families and society can never be calculated fully. As a neuroscientist, I know that despite heroic research efforts our current medical treatments rarely cure neurological problems - and often can't treat them effectively.
Devastating and complex problems with our fragile and amazing nervous system span all ages. Alzheimer's disease, mental illness, autism spectrum disorder, and more are all-too-common.
We need more research, and we also need to be more proactive: Keeping a brain healthy and resilient will benefit the body, as well. It's time to go on the offense with explicit recommendations for brain health during health-care conversations and as part of treatment plans.
What makes a brain healthy? The good news is that commonsense, practical recommendations have emerged from our research efforts: The main pillars are food, sleep, and exercise - outside in nature, when possible. A healthy brain also interacts socially and limits injury and toxin exposure.
Consistent old and new data make it clear that the quality and quantity of food, sleep, and exercise matter a lot. We now appreciate that most brain disorders - neurodegenerative diseases, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, and many more - are intertwined with fundamental problems in cell energy metabolism. And we also know that the nervous system uses more energy than other tissues. Thus, while traditional research has focused on disease-specific mechanisms and drug development, it should come as no surprise that dysfunctional metabolism has a major impact on the dynamic and greedy organ that holds our memories and expresses our emotions, regulates our physical health, and makes decisions to mobilize our actions.
We must accept that the pillars of brain health - food, sleep, and exercise - cannot be marginalized. Sleep regulates metabolism and enhances learning; exercise is likely the most beneficial thing for any brain at any age (not computer brain games or crossword puzzles).
Diets containing processed foods and refined carbohydrates are associated with chronic disease. Yet we rarely acknowledge their effects on the brain, even though they can happen quickly.
On average, teens with diabetes have worse cognitive performance than their peers. Anxiety and depression are increased by an unhealthy diet within months.
A combination of poor sleep, no exercise, poor diet, and no social interactions is literally a recipe for disaster - it is just a matter of time.
The links between diet and cognition and diet and mental health must become part of a national conversation about brain health, as it affects everything and everyone.
We have big problems, and we need our best brains on them. Public policies and education play a big role in shaping behaviors and lifestyle choices; government regulations and subsidies impact our food system. Should we evaluate our policies and programs in the context of brain health? And if being smarter and also less anxious, depressed, and demented is not enough motivation, consider that about one-third of cancers are influenced significantly by the same lifestyle factors as brain health (for some cancers up to 80 percent).
Exercise can be as effective as drugs in treating many conditions - including Parkinson's disease - and should be prescribed in addition to medication.
The scientific community will continue to focus on diseases, and research on brain health also will continue.