A day in the life of a brain health researcher
Our risk of developing dementia is shaped by a complex mix of factors, and there are many, including our age and genes, that sadly we can’t influence. But research tell us that there are things we can do to protect our brain health throughout our lives – and help reduce our risk of developing the condition later on.
This is a really vibrant area of research, with scientists making new discoveries about the ways we can look after our brains all the time. But have you ever wondered what they get up to every day?
Dr Scott Chiesa is an Alzheimer’s Research UK David Carr Fellow at University College London. He is leading a research project, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, to investigate whether risk factors for heart disease are linked to brain health.
In this post, Dr Chiesa takes us behind the scenes of his busy schedule – and reflects on the things he does to look after his brain health on a daily basis.
Please tell us a bit about your current research.
“My research focuses on the early decades of life, an important period that is still relatively poorly understood. More specifically, I’m interested in trying to identify risk factors that could underlie the development of both heart disease and brain disease in early life.
“As our lifestyles and habits are things we have a degree of control over, I hope this research will help us understand how people can effectively improve both their heart health and brain heath, and how early we need to intervene to see the greatest benefits.”
What inspired you to become a researcher?
“I’ve been fascinated by all things science from a young age, but particularly human biology and physiology. I’ve taken a fairly unusual route to the role I work in today, first studying sports science at undergraduate level, then specialising in cardiovascular physiology at master’s and PhD level, and now working in the field of population health.
“I first became interested in researching the area of brain health after seeing first-hand the impact that dementia had on a number of close family members.
“I think it is very important that we as scientists try to communicate to the public that brain health is vital to both mental and physical wellbeing throughout our lives. People with healthy brains are more likely to live healthy lives, while at a societal level improving everyone’s brain health is likely to result in healthier, happier and more productive communities.”
What’s the part of your day that you look forward to most – and what does a typical day look like for you?
“I look forward to all of it!
“I consider myself very lucky to be able to work in a field that I’m genuinely passionate about, so every day is exciting for me.
“You might expect dementia researchers to spend most of our time wearing lab coats and peering through the lens of a microscope – but that’s not always the case.
“My work predominantly involves analysing large amounts of data collected from thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people across their lifetime, so around 80% of my time is spent at the office in front of a computer rather than in an actual laboratory.
“The rest is spent at our nearby laboratory, from where my department coordinates the longest continually running birth cohort study in the world. As the name suggests, birth cohort studies follow participants from the day they were born, often for very long periods, allowing scientists to look at how different factors influence their health over time.
“My other responsibilities include supervising postgraduate students who are carrying out projects looking at heart and brain health, organising science communication events and outreach schemes, and attending meetings with other researchers discussing ongoing projects happening all over the world.”
What little things do you do every day to give back to your brain?
“If there was one thing I wish everyone knew about brain health, it would be that much of the impact of poor brain health, and the increased risk of dementia associated with it, can likely be guarded against by incorporating small changes into your lifestyle. The earlier you do this, the greater the benefit you will likely see for both your heart and brain throughout your life.
“Although I am able to do almost all my work from home, I make a point of coming into the lab or office almost every day, in order to maintain the social interactions that are so important for brain health.
“Exercise is also an important part of my routine. Most nights after work I try to do some form of exercise to make up for my relatively inactive job.
“My go-to exercise for clearing my head is running, which is not only good for my heart – and so good for my brain – but is almost meditative in its ability to distract me from anything I’ve been worrying about during the day.”