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Using Your Head: What is the Future of Brain Health? (Interview Part 1)

Much of health­care deliv­ery has tra­di­tion­ally been set-up to deal with a ‘brain­less body’; yet we con­sis­tently com­plain that we can­not change patient and con­sumer behav­iours and main­tain adher­ence to treat­ment pro­grammes. Health­care sys­tems are now recog­nis­ing the lim­its of this model and that there are major ben­e­fits to bet­ter com­pre­hend­ing and engag­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion: to bet­ter under­stand how we oper­ate, why and how we make deci­sions, improve cog­ni­tion so that peo­ple can bet­ter self-regulate, self-manage and take con­trol, and finally that we need to do more to pro­tect and main­tain cog­ni­tion in an increas­ingly age­ing population.

It was whilst explor­ing such trends in Alzheimer’s Dis­ease that we first engaged the Sharp­Brains organ­i­sa­tion and its founder, Alvaro Fer­nan­dez. Sharp­Brains is an inde­pen­dent mar­ket research firm and think tank, in the emerg­ing field of brain fit­ness and applied neu­ro­science. My recent dis­cus­sions with him, sum­ma­rized in a 2-part inter­view, have focused on the soci­etal and med­ical shift of brain health into main­stream health­care. What we are observ­ing is an evo­lu­tion where cog­ni­tive health moves to a life­long focus as part of holis­tic health and well­be­ing. So what is dri­ving this change and what might this mean for us all?

Regional dif­fer­ences
Inter­est­ingly, the dri­vers of change dif­fer sig­nif­i­cantly region­ally. In the US for exam­ple, change is being dri­ven by con­sumer aware­ness and demand; many are pay­ing more atten­tion to and adopt­ing lifestyles to try to delay demen­tia or cog­ni­tive decline. In addi­tion, they are apply­ing their con­sumer rights to choose the physi­cians they feel are more knowl­edge­able and focused on cog­ni­tion. In Europe how­ever, pol­icy is more often dri­ving change as health sys­tems search for the best strate­gies to man­age a grow­ing elderly pop­u­la­tion. These dif­fer­ences sig­nif­i­cantly impact how inno­va­tions come about and develop over time.

Win­ston Churchill once said that the United States does every­thing right after they have tried every­thing, and that entre­pre­neur­ial mind­set appears to be in evi­dent in brain health. The US has a vibrant mar­ket place, full of inno­va­tion. Ini­tially this was fairly unreg­u­lated but over time it has becomes more robust and sus­tain­able, with larger organ­i­sa­tions becom­ing involved adding to the cred­i­bil­ity of the indus­try. Europe, on the other hand, has been more con­ser­v­a­tive in nature, fol­low­ing inno­va­tion else­where. But these two approaches are com­ple­men­tary; although it will be a ‘messier’ jour­ney in the US, it is likely that we will see wider spec­trum of ideas, tech­nolo­gies and inno­va­tion being devel­oped. Then, in time, Europe will find sys­tem­atic ways to adopt and roll-out these technologies.

Accord­ing to Alvaro we are see­ing regional dif­fer­ences in the uptake of brain health solutions:

  • North Amer­ica, again led by con­sumer demand, is tak­ing a more seri­ous approach. Brain fit­ness is viewed as a holis­tic con­cept, where main­stream lifestyle and tech­nol­ogy inter­ven­tions are used to improve brain health; in much the same way as phys­i­cal fit­ness is viewed.
  • In Europe, where Nin­tendo Brain Train­ing games have been hugely suc­cess­ful, to this point con­sumers per­ceive brain train­ing as lit­tle more than an excuse for video gaming.
  • Asia has had more inter­est from an edu­ca­tional per­spec­tive: how they can bet­ter arm chil­dren for the world of the future, enhanc­ing atten­tion, self-regulation, focus and cog­ni­tive performance.

Brain health becom­ing main­stream
It is likely that these dif­fer­ent regional per­spec­tives will con­verge over time as brain health becomes a more main­stream con­cept. What is already appar­ent across mar­kets is that in the cur­rent finan­cial cli­mate, new brain health inno­va­tions need to prove them­selves to be cost effec­tive (and prob­a­bly low cost). There have obvi­ously been huge ben­e­fits from com­plex inno­va­tions such as MRI, but these are expen­sive tech­nolo­gies. New cog­ni­tive inno­va­tions tend to be light-touch, non-invasive, inex­pen­sive and often har­ness web tech­nolo­gies, which is a very dif­fer­ent eco­nomic model to the tra­di­tional bio-medical approach.

What we are also see­ing, across regions, is an indus­try dri­ven by sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy pio­neers where dif­fer­ent approaches are tried, where a broad­en­ing evi­dence base is being built, and where large organ­i­sa­tions are increas­ingly lend­ing their weight to new research and development.

For exam­ple, the dri­vers’ asso­ci­a­tion in the US, the AAA Foun­da­tion, now offers free or dis­counted com­put­erised cog­ni­tive train­ing to its 30 mil­lion mem­bers. The prod­uct, which com­prises 10–15 hours of train­ing, is specif­i­cally linked to the ele­ments of cog­ni­tion asso­ci­ated with safe dri­ving such as ‘use­ful field of view’, which is a pre­dic­tor of acci­dents and tends to decline for peo­ple in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Tri­als in sev­eral states have shown ben­e­fits in terms of acci­dent rates – reduc­ing poten­tial dam­age, injuries and costs for both its mem­bers and its insur­ance arm.

This is obvi­ously not a stan­dard health­care prob­lem, but it does demon­strate the types of cost effi­cien­cies which can be realised. If you extrap­o­late this into areas where direct resource util­i­sa­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity will affect health­care and work­ing life, you can begin to see the impact this could have.

–> Part 2 of this inter­view is now avail­able HERE.

David Coleiro is a found­ing part­ner at www.strategicnorth.com, and this inter­view is an extract from the book Strate­gic Tales by Strate­gic North. To request your free copy please email them at info@strategicnorth.com.

For more infor­ma­tion on Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and Sharp­Brains work you can read the recent TED­Week­ends arti­cle Retool­ing Brain Care with Low-cost, Data-driven Tech­nolo­gies.

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