Depression and anxiety are often thought of as mental health diseases of the Western lifestyle. While more common in Western cultures, depression and anxiety are found in every society in the world and are serious global health issues.
One study by the University of Queensland Australia involving 480,000 people in 91 countries in 2012 found that clinical anxiety affected around ten percent of people in North America, Western Europe, and Australia/New Zealand compared to about eight percent in the Middle East and six percent in Asia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults.
The World Health Organization’s latest numbers show that 350 million people suffer from depression globally and that it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.
According to the National Institute On Aging, centenarians are the fastest-growing age group in the world with their numbers projected to grow at more than 20 times the rates of the total population by 2050. By 2040, the National Institute on Aging says the number of people sixty-five or older (myself included) worldwide will hit a staggering 1.3 billion. Come 2017, it will be the first time there will be more people 65 and older than kids younger than five. Also, by the year 2050, over 28 million baby boomers are projected to develop Alzheimer’s.
That’s a lot of stressed out, depressed, and old brains.
With these alarming statistics, big money is being poured into research on everything and anything brain related. The Congress of the United States declared the 1990’s to be “The Decade of the Brain” sponsoring educational activities and cutting-edge research. All of the focus has paid off with new discoveries yielding a much better understanding of our brain.
In the book The Scientific American Brave New Brain: How Neuroscience, Brain-Machine Interfaces, Neuroimaging, Psychopharmacology, Epigenetics, the Internet, and Our … and Enhancing the Future of Mental Power, Judith Horstman writes:
We’ve learned more about the brain in the past fifty years than in the preceding fifty thousand, and the cooperation of sciences over the next two decades may even surpass that record.”
What Does This Mean For You?
It means that you may be living your life and making decisions that you think are in your brain’s best interest, but that is really based on outdated and erroneous information. When you know better, you can do better. The grim numbers above show that brain health needs to become a priority for young and old. The good news is that the new information is showing us that we can influence our brain and mental health much more than ever thought. The more informed we are as individuals about how to support our physical brains and minds, the better we can help ourselves, each other, and future generations.
On a personal level, a better functioning brain and a healthier mind can mean a happier, more vibrant, fulfilling life with more satisfying relationships. Health care professionals, educators, and parents can take advantage of this new information to encourage more compassionate, kind, resilient, emotionally intelligent, and mentally healthy individuals which elevates society as a whole.
Specifically, let’s take a look at the five important things you need to know about your brain health today.
Your life sculpts your brain.
Your brain’s form and function are literally a reflection of your everyday habits. It turns out that the age of your brain may be of lesser influence on its structure than what you actually do with it.
Because of neuroplasticity, the scientific truth that your brain’s structure and operation are the results of your experiences, behaviors, emotions, and thoughts, you can support and improve your brain health by the things you do in your everyday life. Or conversely, your lifestyle can tax and stress your brain while increasing the chances of its decline and mental challenges. Diet, exercise, stress management, sleep, socialization, and mental stimulation are key elements to a brain-healthy lifestyle. Read more here.
You’re not stuck with the brain you’re born with.
Your brain is always changing from the day you were born until the day you die, whether it’s to your benefit or not. Neuroplasticity has allowed people who have had strokes and brain trauma to recover amazing functionality. Congenitally blind people’s brains have figured out new ways to see. Children with cerebral palsy have learned to move more gracefully and children with autism have made cognitive strides once thought impossible. Experience-based neuroplasticity has also been harnessed to ease chronic pain. The examples go on and on. You have the power to influence your brain and mental health. Read more here.
Depression is an umbrella term for many mental health conditions, behaviors, and symptoms.
Depression is a complex illness with a basis in brain neurochemicals and thought patterns along with many other contributing factors such as life events, environment, biochemicals, and heredity. A depressed brain looks just like any other brain. In fact, there’s no medical test that can definitively diagnose depression, and it’s not understood in detail. Science has pinpointed the neurochemicals involved and many contributing factors, but the truth is we really don’t know the neural causes of depression or what’s a cause and what’s a symptom even.
At the most basic level, depression is just the routine activation of certain brain circuits, which we all have, in specific patterns that result in depression in that person. There are many factors that contribute to forming depressive patterns and many different ways to successfully treat depression. It’s a very individual condition and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
You have a brain in your belly.
Your gut brain, or enteric nervous system, consists of a network of some 100 million neurons lining the intestines – more than in your spinal cord. The enteric nervous system can function without any input from the central nervous system, actually transmits information to it, and uses over 30 neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, just like the brain in your head. Your gut is also home to most of the 100 trillion organisms making up your microbiome.
A growing body of research has demonstrated that a complex signaling system exists between the mind, brain, gut, and its microbiome which may play a role in brain conditions, including autism, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. Maintaining a flourishing microbiome, which is wiped out by antibiotics, alcohol, some drugs, and other things, with probiotics (good bacteria) is showing promising results to improving everything from irritable bowel syndrome and oral health to mood, stress, and depression.
It’s a relatively new scientific discovery that the bacteria living in your gut influence your overall health and according to a growing body of research, impact your mental health too. (Read more: How What Goes In Your Mouth Affects What Goes On In Your Brain) Read more here about the enteric nervous system and about gut-brain health.
Fat is your brain’s friend.
For decades, we were told that low fat, low cholesterol was the way to go. The advised high carbohydrate, low-fat diet has coincided with a startling increase in obesity, diabetes, and many mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. We now know that this type of diet does not optimally feed your brain and some even suggest that it may be partially responsible for the Alzheimer’s epidemic.
I don’t know. What I do know is that your brain is 70 percent fat and that fat is it the preferred fuel of your metabolism. Most of the fatty acids in your brain are actually saturated and function as signaling messengers that influence metabolism, including the release of insulin. A diet that skimps on healthy fats robs your brain of the raw materials it needs to function optimally. Read more here.