What motivates people to look after their brain health?
The prospect of experiencing symptoms of cognitive or mental decline was a key motivation to undertake lifestyle changes, even more so than having been diagnosed with a brain disorder – an important finding from the second public report of the Global Brain Health Survey.
7 of 10 respondents said they would be motivated to change lifestyle if they noticed problems with their brain health, such as if their memory worsened.
“The challenge with this is that it might be a bit late to start making lifestyle changes once symptoms arise. Taking care of the brain is a lifelong endeavor, the earlier people adopt healthy behaviours for their brain health, the better”, says lead author of the survey, Dr. Isabelle Budin-Ljøsne, from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
Only a third of respondents were motivated to make lifestyle changes if confronted with a brain disease diagnosis.
“This suggests that people might perceive lifestyle factors as irrelevant after a diagnosis is set and several signs of the disease are obvious” says Budin-Ljøsne.
Brain health is a relatively new concept encompassing mental and cognitive health. Good brain health involves both mental wellbeing and normal brain function, in the absence of brain disease.
The current public report is based on answers from more than 27 000 people in Europe and elsewhere, and provides insight in factors motivating people to look after their brain.
People want to know if lifestyle changes work
Half of the respondents would be motivated by knowing that lifestyle changes are beneficial for brain health. Furthermore, half of the respondents would not be motivated to change if they were unsure of the beneficial effect, or if they lack information about what to do.
"People need assurance that changing their lifestyle is worth the effort” says Budin-Ljøsne.
One UK respondent put it like this: “If there was some good information on the size of the impact a change would make. We all know healthy lifestyle etc. improves health but mostly what stops us doing more is not knowing how much of an impact it has. It might be years of additional exercise for possibility of a small gain”.
Previous studies suggest that certain lifestyles such as being physically active, eating a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep, reducing and/or limiting negative stress, and refraining from substance use such as alcohol, smoking or illicit drugs, are associated with lower risk of developing brain disease.
Harder to convince older people to change
Motivations to make lifestyle changes varied across sociodemographic and individual characteristics. Our results suggest that it may be harder to convince old people (> 60 years of age) to change habits than young people (< 40 years of age). Young respondents were more willing to change lifestyle than old respondents but would probably be prevented by lack of time and motivation, or if the changes were expensive.
We also found that engagement in brain-friendly behaviour and the impact of information may depend on individual cognitive and mental well-being. Respondents who self-rated their mental or cognitive health as poor engaged less in healthy activities and may need more support and encouragement to make lifestyle changes than people who self-rated their mental or cognitive health as average or above.
People are willing to do more for their brain health
Around half of respondents already frequently engaged in favourable behaviour for their brain health such as getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and exercising.
More than three in four respondents were willing to exercise more, relax more, eat more healthily, and engage in more brain stimulating activities. Respondents were less willing to avoid alcohol consumption.
“Overall, these results are positive, as they show that people are highly interested in improving their brain health. Respondents were open to the idea that modifying brain health is possible and willing to act for their brain health, which is an important first step. However, our respondents, who primarily were women with high education, were probably more interested in brain health than average people. It would be interesting to investigate how other groups think about brain health,” says Budin-Ljøsne.
The Global Brain Health Survey
The report is based on answers from 27,590 subjects from 81 countries who responded on questions via Internet in the Global Brain Health Survey, and is based on the following themes:
- Respondents were asked how often they engaged in various activities purposefully for their brain health.
- Presented with the possibility that their doctor told them they could reduce the risk of developing brain disease by changing lifestyle, the respondents indicated how likely they were to do various activities (e.g. exercise more, eat more healthy. etc.)
- Respondents were asked to select the three most important reasons that would motivate/prevent them to change lifestyle to improve their brain health.
The online survey was available in 14 languages, including French, Spanish, Dutch, Hungarian, German, Italian, and Scandinavian languages, between June 2019 - August 2020.
The results confirm previous findings on the need for public information on brain health and early lifestyle intervention. Personalized interventions to accommodate individual differences in motivations can be essential to improve brain health.