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Brain Health is a Journey That Begins at Birth

Brain health is both a biological issue and a social one — and something that should be addressed across the lifespan, says the longtime leader of UC Davis Health’s NIH designated Alzheimer’s Disease Center. A new university initiative aims to continue the center’s tradition of novel and actionable findings about dementia prevention, detection and intervention.

By Charles DeCarli, M.D., Director, UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Co-Champion of the Healthy Brain Aging Initiative Big Idea

Every end has a beginning. Just like you don’t wake up one morning to heart failure, you don’t suddenly hit dementia. It’s a lifetime of rugged beating that leads to both.

As individuals and a society, we focus on heart health, bone health, cancer prevention… but we don’t often focus on building the strongest brains that we can have, and then maintaining them properly.

Yet if we can reduce dementia risk, we should. And our own research, along with science around the field, is showing that we probably can — and in several ways.

It’s very important to modify or treat the disease when it presents, of course, but we shouldn’t think we can’t do anything before that. When we talk about dementia as an end of-life disease, something that’s often missed is that it’s a journey — with a beginning, a growth, and an end.

This is a description of that path, and things we’ve learned along the way.

Building a strong foundation

Colorful blocks in a circle being handled by two hands


Research shows that long-term brain health begins before birth. Prenatal and developmental health factors are incredibly important in helping the brain develop to its fullest potential.

This means brain health is a biological issue, but also a social one. I read recently that a fifth of U.S. children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. A quarter of American kids live with a solo parent — mostly solo mothers, a third of which are living in poverty.

These factors can make it a real challenge to provide enriched education for children, at a time when a focus on early development is very critical. For instance, there may be less opportunity for quality stimulation if parents often delegate care to someone else due to work demands. So, early childhood support becomes a social determinant for brain health, just as it is for a range of health issues.


To give their kids the best health care for their brains, I believe parents need to be positioned to:
  • READ to them every night, and get them to read.
  • Have family time and traditions. There is sufficient research to suggest that (social) connectedness is really, really important to the developing brain. Kids that are alone for long periods of time can disconnect, and be at greater risk later in life.
  • The brain health foundation doesn’t end there. The evidence is piling up, from our own studies and those of colleagues, that body health begets brain health. Adult health behaviors are a beam or pillar. And this is another area where we, again, can hit some big roadblocks on the path to even the most fundamental protective actions. Take high blood pressure as a perfect example: about 1 in 5 U.S. adults with hypertension still don’t know that they have it, whether for lack of access to care, nutritional information, healthy food, or other reasons. The result is that people move into older age and they haven’t maintained their brain health. And then unfortunately, they’re ripe for trouble.

Related UC Davis Research: Experiences at every stage contribute to cognitive abilities in old age

A large study by UC Davis and Canadian researchers found that specific life experiences, such as level of reading attainment and intellectually stimulating activities, are predictive of the rate of latelife cognitive decline.

Published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Neuropsychology, the 2014 study was one of the first comprehensive examinations of the multiple influences of varied demographic factors early in life, and their relationship to cognitive aging.

In this particular study, researchers also found that early life experiences — such as childhood socioeconomic status and literacy — may have greater influence on cognitive impairment risk than such demographic characteristics as race and ethnicity.

“This study is unusual in that it examines how many different life experiences affect cognitive decline in late life… ” said co-author Dan Mungas, professor of neurology and an associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

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