Oct 30, 2008
By: Alvaro Fernandez
As mentioned before, the World Economic Forum asked me to write “an 800 words summary of your most compelling actionable idea on the challenges of gerontology”, in preparation for the Inaugural Summit of the Global Agenda that will take place November 7 to 9th in Dubai.A good number of SharpBrains readers and clients offered their insights — and expressed an interest in reading the draft. So below you have — a proposal to create a Global Consortium for Neurocognitive Fitness Innovation, building on our existing market research and advisory services work. Your thoughts?
Growing Demands on Our Brains: Picture 6.7 billion Primitive Brains inhabiting a Knowledge Society where lifelong learning and mastering constant change in complex environments are critical for productive work, health and personal fulfillment.
Welcome to Planet Earth, 2008.
Further stretched by increased longevity: Now picture close to 1 billion of those brains over the age of 60 – and please remember that, less than 100 years ago, life expectancy was between 30 to 40 years. The rapidly evolving Knowledge Society is placing new and enormous demands on our “primitive” human brains. And the longer our lifespans, the more obvious the “cognitive gap”. Hence, from a health point of view, the growing prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease and its precursor Mild Cognitive Impairment. And, from a workplace point of view, the perception that older workers can’t learn new tricks, and are to be substituted by younger employees as soon as practical.
Significance of lifelong neuroplasticity: The good news is that substantive brain research is showing how our brains retain lifelong neuroplasticity (the ability of our brains to rewire themselves responding to experience), how they can physically be strengthened –via the Cognitive/ Brain Reserve– and its functions enhanced, opening the way to slow-down if not reverse the cognitive decline that often comes with age. Use it and Improve It may be more accurate than Use It or Lose It, and help close the growing cognitive gap. Humans can become the gardeners of our own brains by focusing on four pillars: a balanced diet, cardiovascular physical exercise, stress management and brain exercise that incorporates well-directed novelty, variety and challenge.
Cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology are ready to step up: a growing number of research-based frameworks and applications present clear mainstream opportunities, yet they are often misunderstood, since they are presented in fragmentary and confusing ways. Think about the potential for having an annual “mental check-up” that helps set up a baseline and identify appropriate interventions. Think about being able to pinpoint specific needs and enhance, in non-invasive ways, specific neurocognitive functions, such as visual and auditory processing speed, working memory, executive functions, emotional self-regulation, attention.
We need bridges: There seems to be multiple areas of disconnect between gerontology, preventive healthcare overall, cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology. Innovative and collaborative partnerships will be required to transform the growing amount of mainstream interest and research findings into a rational, interdisciplinary, and sustainable approach to neurocognitive fitness.
Growing confusion among consumers and professionals: there are no “magic pills” or “general solutions”, but very useful tools when used appropriately. Better assessments, taxonomies and integrated research efforts are required for the field to mature. Some brain functions tend to improve as we age, whereas some tend to decline. For example, as executives tackle many difficult situations over time, we grow an “intuition” (or crystallized pattern-recognition) for best approaches. As long as the environment does not change too rapidly, we can continue to accumulate wisdom. But some areas of mental functioning typically decline. We usually see this in areas that test our capacity to learn and adapt to new environments, such as effortful problem-solving in novel situations, processing speed, working memory, and attention. Research has shown that all these areas can be enhanced in older brains. But the priorities are not the same for all individuals, or for all objectives (safer driving, preventing Alzheimer’s symptoms, improving memory…) In summary, the field holds much promise, but the picture is complicated.
A Global Consortium for Neurocognitive Fitness Innovation composed of 100 leading universities, policy-makers, healthcare/ insurance providers and developers of technology-based neurocognitive assessments and training tools can provide the taxonomy, guidance and structure required to guide applications of cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology in gerontology and geriatrics –and healthcare overall.
The 16 members of the Global Agenda Council on The Challenges of Gerontology could be members of the consortium as thought-leaders and advocates for the needs and priorities of older adults. SharpBrains, the market research and advisory services firm focused on neurocognitive fitness, could help facilitate the process as appropriate.
A transparent online presence could facilitate the engagement of professionals and the public at large. Especially, yes, of brains over 60.
1) Best practices: to share best practices in preventive brain health education, seniors housing, hospital-based programs, insurance-led initiatives, public policy efforts.
2) Standards: to define standards for neurocognitive assessments and training tools,
3) Taxonomy: to establish a common taxonomy and language,
4) Education: to engage professionals and the public at large in well-informed “brain maintenance”,
5) Policy readiness: to anticipate policy implications and improve readiness,
6) Research path: to propose a research and applications path.