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Why brain health matters: a neurologist’s view

The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe, with more than 80 billion neurons (brain cells) connected in trillions of ways. Our brains control everything we do – from modulating our heart beat and breathing, through to storing our memories, allowing us to communicate, plan, and feel emotion.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1 in 10 of us think our brain health has deteriorated. But, two thirds of us also say the pandemic has prompted us to think about making changes to improve our health.

Which makes now a better time than ever to think about our brain health.

Protecting the brain

As a consultant neurologist I see the devastation caused when the brain is affected by diseases – and in particular the physical diseases that cause dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease. Today 850,000 individuals in the UK have dementia, and they and their families and loved ones live daily with the consequences of progressive deterioration in brain function.

There is no sure-fire way to ensure good brain health or prevent dementia – which is caused by complex diseases that are influenced by our age, genetics, lifestyle and general health.

But research has shown that there are ways to stack the odds in our favour.

And it is never too late – or too early – to start.

What can we do to help?

We can’t change our age or whether we carry genes that increase the risk for the diseases that cause dementia. But research published in the Lancet in 2020, suggests up to 40% of cases of dementia could be influenced by risk factors linked to our health, behaviour and environment.

While not all of these risk factors are easy to avoid, some are in our power to influence.

Some of the most important ways to look after your brain are also the things that help keep your heart healthy.

My research at UCL follows volunteers all born in the same week in 1946, who have been helping answer questions about health and wellbeing ever since they were born. We found that those with higher blood pressure in their 30s, 40s and 50s were more likely to show signs of damage in the brain aged 70.

Taking care of the heart by keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check, not smoking, taking regular exercise, and drinking within recommended limits also keep the brain healthy and keeping socially connected and mentally active may also help too. You can find out more here.

I am supporting the Think Brain Health campaign because, as with all aspects of our health, the better informed we are about what our brain does and how we can keep it healthy, the easier it is to make positive choices.

About the author

Prof Jonathan Schott

Prof Jonathan (Jon) Schott joined Alzheimer’s Research UK in November 2019, as our Chief Medical Officer.

The Chief Medical Officer is an important new role for Alzheimer’s Research UK, providing the organisation with clinical expertise and advice to help drive forward our research priorities, as well as being an important Ambassador for dementia research.

Jon brings a wealth of clinical knowledge to this role.

He is Professor of Neurology at the Dementia Research Centre, UCL where he leads on a number of clinical research projects, with one being Insight 46 – a major Alzheimer’s Research UK funded neuroimaging study of the MRC National Survey of Health and Development British 1946 Birth Cohort. He has published over 240 papers in the field of dementia and ageing.

Jon is also an Honorary Consultant Neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square where he runs a busy cognitive disorders service with a particular emphasis on young onset and unusual dementias.

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