During a fascinating conversation about why employers should care about brain health, we were surprised to learn that cognitive health starts to decline in our 20s and 30s. Here’s a little more of what we heard from Sarah Lenz Lock, SVP Policy & Brain Health, Executive Director, Global Council on Brain Health.
How big of a problem are cognitive issues in the US?
One of society’s greatest achievements has been growing life expectancies all across the world. There has been a 25-year gain in longevity over the last 100 years. That is terrific news. The not-so terrific news is that increasing age is the single greatest non-modifiable risk factor for the diseases that cause dementia, the most common one being Alzheimer’s. The numbers of people living with dementia in the US is set to skyrocket as the population ages, going from about 6 million people in 2020 to 14 million in 2050. And while the burden and costs of caring for loved ones with dementia are going up, the number of potential caregivers is going down due to declining birth rates.
There’s not much we can do about aging, though.
It’s a common assumption that cognitive decline is an inevitable part of aging, but it isn’t. Aging is a non-modifiable risk factor for cognitive problems, but it is far from the only risk factor. The science is showing us that healthy lifestyle choices can reduce risks for cognitive decline at the population level and there are effective strategies to protect brain health as you age. The Global Council on Brain Health has now issued 10 reports on modifiable lifestyle factors and issued recommendations and practical tips on how to reduce your risks to brain health – and corrects some misconceptions along the way. For example, exercise supports your brain as well as your overall health. Playing a musical instrument and spending time with friends are both activities that can benefit cognitive function. On the other hand, lots of people are taking supplements to improve brain health when there is no credible evidence that they work to slow or stop cognitive decline (unless you are a rare American adult with a vitamin deficiency).
Even more intriguing to employers and employees, the GCBH has evidence that the sooner you start to foster better brain health, the more likely your brain will be in better shape over the course of your life.
Why should employers take an interest in promoting brain health – is there a ROI for them?
Employers need to care because healthy, age diverse multigenerational teams of employees are good for business. In 2024, 35% of the American workforce will be aged 50 and older. But it may surprise you that I don’t believe that is the primary reason why employers or employees, for that matter, should care about brain health. A 2020 AARP survey found that 83% of global business leaders recognize that multigenerational workforces are key to the growth and long-term success of their companies. Two major advantages to an age-diverse workforce is that it promotes stability as older workers tend to exhibit lower rates of unexpected turnover and mixed age teams demonstrate increased productivity and innovation.
There is something about age diversity within companies that appears to boost productivity because team members share knowledge gained from past experience which sparks new solutions to problems while avoiding costly mistakes. By fostering good brain health, your employees of all ages will be better able to think, reason and remember, and to keep contributing to those high-performing multigenerational teams over time.
Beyond that, employers should care because their employees care. Brain health could be a well-being initiative that really resonates.
A typical employee population spans five or six generations of workers. Is brain health relevant for all ages and if so, what is your advice for employers who want to take on this cause?
Employers are in a unique position of being able to help influence their employees from ages 20 on to become more proactive in maintaining their brain health. There is enormous variation in the change in cognition in individuals over time, and it has been well-established that some age-related cognitive decline begins in healthy educated adults when they are in their 20s and 30s. Starting to promote brain health in employees at ages 20 and 30 will promote healthy aging across the lifespans of all your employees.
Simply bridging the knowledge gaps that there are simple lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk for cognitive decline as you age holds the potential to maintain many more healthy brains through the decades, at the same time helping businesses to thrive. While we like to say it is never too late to start, in the case of brain health, it’s never too early, either.