An innovative website promoting brain health has been launched in Trinity College Dublin as part of a new EU Commission initiative to increase the societal impact of brain research.
More people across the EU are now living longer than ever before. However failing mental function can frequently impair the quality of those extra years. The Hello Brain campaign brings together the latest information on brain health together with the latest brain research in a bid to raise public awareness of the importance of investing in brain health in order to support independent living in our older years. The diversity of cognitive functioning observed in older adults, together with the scientific discovery that the brain is plastic, has sparked considerable European research seeking ways to maintain cognitive function, prevent decline, extend independent living and promote active and healthy ageing. The campaign hopes to help the general public understand how their brain works, what science is discovering about that remarkable mass of fatty tissue inside our head and how to keep it healthy.
The Hello Brain campaign, which is the public face of the ASAPS project (A Sharing Approach to Promoting Science), received €1 million funding from the EU Commission under its Seventh Framework Programme. The project, led by Trinity College Dublin, is co-ordinated by Dr Sabina Brennan, Principal Investigator at the Institute of Neuroscience and Assistant Director of Trinity's NEIL (Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives) Programme. Significantly, the campaign translates complex scientific information into is easy-to-understand, practical health and well-being information designed to encourage people to be more proactive about their brain health so that they can live independently for longer.
The Hello Brain website, (available in English, French and German) provides practical tips on how to keep your brain healthy using a range of entertaining videos and online resources, including the Hello Brain Health App which can be downloaded for free.
The Hello Brain App provides daily suggestions to support brain health and it is available for smartphone (iPhone and Android) as well as iPad. The campaign has also developed a web-version of the App for those who prefer to work from their computer and a hardcopy version, available to download from the website, for those who prefer pen and paper. The campaign invites users to take the Hello Brain Challenge "to do one thing every day that's good for your brain health". Social media platforms Facebook and Twitter help to make the campaign more interactive, encouraging a sense of community participation among users.
Hello Brain website includes six short animations (all approx. 2 minutes) specifically produced for the campaign:
- What will your life look like in 50 years?
- Will I lose my memory when I get old?
- How can I keep my brain sharp when my body gets old?
- Is exercise good for my brain?
- Is it ever too late to follow your childhood dreams?
- What makes your brain work?
There are also six video interviews in which international scientists discuss topical issues in brain health and research
- Can my leisure activities protect my cognitive function?
- Can I change my brain?
- What is neuroplasticity and why is it important?
- The Upsides of ageing
- Retirement, memory and usefulness
- Challenge, Change and Learning
And an hour length documentary, entitled The Age of The Brain.
Speaking about the background for the campaign, Dr Brennan, commented: "We asked people across Europe what they feared most about growing old and they told us that they feared losing their memory and losing their independence. They also told us that dementia was the disease that they feared most."
"However what most people don't know is that research is showing that 'modifiable' lifestyle factors like physical and mental exercise and social engagement can help to protect brain health and function. We want to make the general public aware of this so that they can benefit from this scientific knowledge and be more proactive about their own brain health."
"Your brain is one of the most complex systems we know of in the Universe, and as with all living things the environment affects how it works. For your brain, that environment is how you live, how physically active you are, how much you engage with other people, how you sleep and eat and whether you occupy your brain with tasks that can strengthen it."
According to Professor Brian Lawlor, Conolly Norman Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at Trinity and Consultant Psychiatrist at St James's Hospital, "The scientific evidence is starting to show that our lifestyle can have a major impact on how our brains function and react to the ageing process. Being physically active, building positive connections with the people around us, challenging our brain, and managing our diet, diabetes, hypertension and stress are all linked with better brain health."
However, the Hello Brain campaign is not just aimed at older populations but is something everyone needs to think about. "Even young adults in their mid-20s could benefit and should consider protecting their brains now for the future," added Professor Lawlor. "Think of it like a pension fund. Healthy brain habits now build the brain's cognitive reserve for later on. It's a lodgement, an investment in your 'brain bank' for later in life."
There are currently 150 million people aged over 50 in Europe and one of the primary ways that they use the Internet is to educate themselves about their health. The Hello Brain campaign and website capitalise on the growth of digital literacy among European citizens in order to share important and relevant scientific information about ageing in a way that will educate and empower, whilst also addressing the digital divide by providing some campaign material s in more traditional formats.
Highlighting the significance of the website for GPs, Professor Lawlor said: "Many of your patients may feel that memory loss and dementia are inevitable parts of ageing. Hello Brain can help you make them aware that this is not necessarily the case, and to illustrate the steps that they can take now to potentially protect their brain and memory in the longer term."
Bob and May Scott's review of the Hello Brain Health App
"The Hello Brain App couldn't have come along at a better time for us," commented Bob Scott (68). Bob and his wife May, now retired, recently road-tested the Hello Brain Challenge App by logging in on a daily basis following attendance at an Active Retirement conference where Dr Brennan was an invited speaker. "Our grown-up children had been nagging us to get iPads. 'They're so intuitive, they said'. That may be true, but they are also confusing because they are different to PCs. We needed something to get us into it, using it regularly. Hello Brain was this, as well as our first experience of downloading an 'App'."
"We love the 'Brainbow', it's very motivating, and it makes us think about our day, and what we've done with it - which we probably wouldn't do otherwise, so the benefits have spread way beyond the basic task itself. We are going to talk to our local group, (of which we are the treasurer and chair-person), to encourage more people to get involved. Lots of our members have done introductory courses on computing, so it's a perfect thing for them to take on as a next exercise, as well as benefitting from using the App itself."
"We will definitely use the App on the website and the fact that it can be accessed on iPhone, iPad, Android phone, or PC and that there is a paper version will make it possible for everybody to have a go. We found it very easy to get into and use and we like the background information that is available on the App."
How Hello Brain Can Help Keep Your Brain Healthy
Brain health is intricately tied to the health of our body. Physical exercise not only helps your heart, it can increase the size of your hippocampus, the part of the brain crucial to making memories. Physical exercise also generates a chemical called BDNF, which acts like fertiliser for the brain, encouraging the growth of neural connections and new brain cells. You also need to keep socially active, as well, especially as you get older, because there's growing evidence to suggest that people who avoid getting lonely, reduce their risk of cognitive decline.
The key messages of the Hello Brain campaign are:
- Cognitive Decline is not inevitable
- The Brain is plastic and can change even in later life
- Cognitive Reserve offers protection against decline
- Risk and protective factors have been identified therefore it is possible and important to be proactive about brain health