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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.