The study of the human brain is growing more sophisticated with the advent of more advanced neuroimaging technologies. This development- colliding with the aging of the baby boomers- is driving the evolution of a new area of study and practice: brain health.
The study of the human brain is simultaneously mysterious and fulfilling as we continue to learn more about its grand architecture and function. This wonderful two-to-four-pound structure is the single greatest and most complicated system ever designed in the history of the universe. All of our thoughts, emotions, and movements are products of thousands of neurons firing in response to a particular environmental input. Our brain is the birthplace of our identity, and while we should strive to learn everything we can about this part of our being, we can only speculate about and imagine the brain's capabilities.
Despite our primitive understanding of how the brain functions, we are now better informed-and neuroscience has unleashed findings both transforming and exciting. The study of the human brain may be that final great frontier of exploration that yields answers to our most complex questions.
Excitement about human brain study has accelerated with the advent of more advanced neuroimaging technologies, and this is colliding with the aging of the baby boomers (a cohort of seventy-six million strong born between 1946 and 1964), a generation that is passionate and educated about health. What has now evolved is a new area of study and practice known as brain health, one of the most popular and discussed topics in healthcare today.
It is quite common to read about brain health in consumer magazines and major newspapers, or to see programs about it on television. The topic has permeated the business sector, healthcare and the insurance industry, assisted living, libraries, lifelong learning institutes and education, the media, and religion. While such information dissemination is likely positive for educating the general public, there remains a need to define brain health and to rely on scientifically based standards for consumer application.
Underlying the increased attention to the human brain and brain health is a fundamental question: Can the human brain be shaped for health and, if so, how does this occur? Another question of equal importance ponders what we can do, if anything, to promote our brain health.
This issue of Generations addresses these questions by providing a critical review of some of the major areas of brain health. The purpose of this issue is multifold: to discuss neural plasticity as a primary mechanism for shaping the brain towards health; to review both the normal changes and pathologic conditions associated with the aging brain (plasticity infers both positive and negative change); to review research on the relationship between lifestyle and brain health; and to serve as a reference point for the consumer to make informed decisions about the ever-proliferating information on brain health.
Brain Health Defined
There is no uniform definition of brain health; terms such as "brain fitness," "cognitive fitness," and "mental fitness" are often used to mean the same thing. While the contents of this Generations are not meant to be the ultimate standard for defining brain health, it is important and useful to put forth a definition that applies especially to this issue of the journal.
Brain health is the result of a dynamic process in which a person engages in behaviors and environments to shape the brain toward a healthier existence. The articles that follow support the idea that environmental input (our choice of actions and external stimuli) has an impact on our brain. The focus is to try and identify those behaviors and environments that help to shape the brain toward health. Several useful reviews have been published on the relationship between environment and the shaping of the brain towards health (Diamond and Hopson, 1998; Kotulak, 1997; Nussbaum, 2003), and this Generations will build upon these early reviews. …