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Brain Health and Wellness: Digital Solutions for a Fit, Healthy Brain

Brain health and wellness is top of mind for many people. How can you support a fit, healthy brain?

Simple, daily shifts in your lifestyle can boost brain health.  What are some of the easiest ways to make those shifts?  Digital and mobile solutions may be something to help you.

Proactive approaches to lifestyle wellness are critical for a fit, healthy brain.

The primary factors in overall brain health are somewhat extensive.  Genetic-related dispositions are one part of the puzzle.  However, included in the list are lifestyle and environmental factors that are known to be influential.  

Lifestyle medicine has shown us a wealth of information and led us to areas that we CAN place focus on.

We also now understand from epigenetics that the genes that may increase our susceptibility for certain conditions can remain more or less dormant versus being triggered in our life course.  Whether or not this happens will be dependent on specific circumstances.

Here are the main things that we know about brain health:

  • Lifestyle-related factors relevant to brain health include food choices, physical activity levels, social connections, sleep habits, and stress management.  
  • Regarding internal physiology, inflammation, neuroplasticity, and hormonal activity are influential to the health and well-being of the brain. 
  • Other factors such as aging, environmental exposures, and behavioral habits play a role in overall brain health and function.
  • Measures of brain health may include cognitive, emotional, and physical functions.
    • Cognitive:  memory, executive function and decision-making, mental clarity (versus feeling like you have a “foggy brain”), language
    • Emotional:  mood, feelings related to well-being
    • Physical:  balance or coordination, motor function, response times, how well your senses are working, fatigue or energy levels

5 activities that may help boost your brain health:

  1. Cognitive exercises, such as mentally stimulating puzzles or problem-solving games, reading, or arts and crafts
  2. Consumption of nutrient-dense whole foods, including those with healthy fats
  3. Meditation and yoga (as well as relaxation techniques in general)
  4. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
  5. Incorporating both strength training and cardiovascular exercise in your physical activity routines

Of course, many of these things can fit into your lifestyle routine.  

However, sometimes we need a little accountability or motivation to stay on track.  We may also need tools to help us simplify!

Which digital solutions could help support a fit, healthy brain? 

Digital health solutions is a rapidly emerging area.  These applications serve to support both medical and public health practices.  However, most importantly, YOU and your health journey.  

Mobile health solutions (mHealth) can help you take an active role in monitoring, tracking, and learning about your health.  Some of these solutions can communicate real-time data to healthcare professionals, which may enhance the therapeutic partnership between you and your healthcare providers.  They are also something that can be there according to your schedule.

Many digital health options now integrate with mobile devices.  These integrations help to support the real-time attributes of the solution.  However, platforms that you log in via a computer are still prevalent.  There are general health and wellness options, such as Apple Health or FitBit, and targeted digital solutions that are condition- or modality-specific.

Regarding brain health, digital and mobile options can help you simplify and to sift through complex scientific information.  Digital applications focused on brain health may also provide assessments, cognitive exercises, and lifestyle-related tips, guidelines, and trackers.

There is a range of mobile applications for both health consumers or scientific research and clinical practice.  Some options, such as the TabCAT, are still being used exclusively in research studies or clinical applications.  These mobile solutions may be focused more on neurocognitive disorders or neurology problems.  However, some applications can also serve as a mechanism to connect with other people who have the same health condition.  

Other clinical tools, such as BrainCheck, focus on clinical diagnosis’ and the respective management of the condition.  Therefore, digital solutions like this serve as an option for healthcare and wellness professionals to work better with people and their brain health.

BrainHQ is an online platform and mobile application.  The solutions represent what we would think of when considering digital applications centered on brain health.  There is a clear emphasis on “brain training” and gamification in many mobile applications.  The underlying science of this is related to the neuroplasticity of the brain.

The BrainHQ tools primarily focus on cognitive exercises.  Also, the company touts the research basis of the activities.  Furthermore, it pairs the foundation in science-driven cognition tests with user-driven algorithms to tailor options unique to your brain.  A newsletter and blog called “Brain Resources” are included to incorporate other lifestyle-related factors, such as nutrition.

The platform is available from a computer or mobile device via both GooglePlay and AppStore.  The service includes both free and subscription-based options.  Also, it partners with libraries across the U.S., insurance companies, schools, and other professional organizations.  Therefore, it is possible to access beyond the subscription service through an affiliate organization.

Cleveland Clinic Healthy Brains is also an online platform with a mobile application option on GooglePlay and AppStore.There is a lot of emphasis on their baseline assessment tool, Brain Check-up, which aligns to core information that we know from scientific research.  This baseline tool is more or less a self-check of where you might be with cognitive function and lifestyle-related factors associated with better brain health.  It provides a score, recommendations, and a dashboard to track changes you might make beyond the assessment.

Memory is a primary focus of the Brain Check-up. Yet, the suite of resources on the Healthy Brains dashboard conveys a more well-rounded approach to the interconnected variables between lifestyle-related factors and brain health.  They call this the 6 Pillars of Brain Health, which includes physical activity, food and nutrition, medical health factors, sleep, cognitive exercises, and social connections.

Essentially, Healthy Brains is a great place to get started and to perform annual check-ins.  The baseline assessment is available to complete once a year.  The platform does connect to FitBit to provide more interactive components, but the content provided from the baseline and individualized pillar results is primarily informative.  This information could be a great place to start when setting health-related goals, however.

Cogniciti Brain Health Assessment is not as full of an interactive digital tool as other options yet provides a baseline assessment, workshops, programs, and courses.  There is also a simple tracking tool to score how you are doing with lifestyle-related behaviors.  The assessment focuses on memory and aging.  It takes about 20-30 minutes to complete.

BrainMD Brain Type Assessment is part of the service offerings from a leading influencer and expert on brain health, Dr. Daniel Amen, and the respective network of Amen Clinics.  The assessment is a little more skills- or personality-based but will generate a brain type, a brain health score, and a brief report with tips for boosting brain health.  You can read more on why they promote the brain type assessment from this blog article

Dr. Amen’s suite of programs and services also includes My BrainFitLife with a mobile app in the beta stage of product development.  The mobile app centers on brain training for optimal memory, mood, focus, and energy.  Signing up for the beta program also provides access to a video course, recipes, a neurocognitive assessment, brain-centered games and exercises, and a community forum.

Total Brain is an integrative solution that considers mental health as an expression of brain function.  It encompasses a full scope across emotions, feelings, behavior and cognitive performance measures, including memory, focus, and executive decision-making.  

Total Brain’s mobile app focuses on self-monitoring tools and screeners.  Then provides personalized recommendations for mental health and related factors, such as the better management of stress.  

The company has plans to incorporate other health-monitoring tools into the app, such as heart rate variability.  Currently, the applications are not direct-to-consumer.  They are available through worksite wellness programs, clinical providers, or other partner organizations.

MyBrainTest.org is a website that includes a few different cognitive health assessment options. The Healthy Brain Test focuses on risk factors and lifestyle. While, other tests check for things such as brain processing speeds. There is also a concussion symptom checker.  The website has some additional content, but other interactive components are not available.

AARP’s Staying Sharp is an add-on option with an AARP membership. Therefore, it isn’t fully accessible to the general public like other options.  However, it includes baseline assessments, daily activities, and additional learning opportunities from videos and articles.

The interactive, daily challenges incorporate a component of gamification that may be motivating to users.  The digital tool is part of another membership program.  Therefore, we were limited to test the application.  However, you can learn more about a specific Staying Sharp user experience from this blog article.

What mobile solutions are our favorite options for a fit, healthy brain?

Coming up with clear conclusions to this question proved to be more challenging than we had hoped.  However, what we were looking for in our review included the following:

  • Did the solution provide a baseline cognitive assessment?  After all, research studies have supported this.  Naturally, discussing the strength and scientific basis of the specific cognitive assessments would lead to further discussion.  However, we were interested to know whether the solution included a baseline assessment or not.
  • Did the solution provide relevant information or activities on lifestyle-related factors?  We reviewed the comprehensiveness of the digital solutions.  Also, to see if they incorporated food and nutrition, environmental factors, and other healthy habits within daily routines.
  • Were there special features included?  If so, how did they relate to what we know about nurturing brain health?
  • What was the ease of use and overall accessibility of the solution?  We wanted to understand 1) the level of intuitive nature of the features, 2) whether or not it included tutorials, and 3) the distribution channels for the digital solutions.

We loved the scientific basis of the cognitive exercises in digital solutions like BrainHQ and could quickly observe how they adapted to the specific user.  (Although research on whether or not digital-based cognitive exercises significantly improve brain health is still underway.)  As we learned from most articles on brain health and mobile apps, the foundation of many consumer-focused digital solutions for brain health is “brain training.”

However, it may not be black and white for whether or not to include a baseline cognitive assessment.  Some of these assessments may take a longer time to complete or are best delivered by a trained medical professional.  Also, the dive-in and get-started approach may be more relatable to end-users.

Some digital solutions stay focused and deep in an emphasis on “brain training” exercises.  While others try to incorporate more health-related information and activities.  No digital solutions seemed to represent the full range of factors known to influence brain health.  (More on that below.)

Out of the solutions we tried out, none were overly challenging to get started.  However, it wasn’t always clear how to complete some of the cognitive exercises.  Furthermore, this required watching tutorial videos and took more time to get started with the platform.  Also, we kept thinking about where senior-aged populations fit into this landscape.

What else would we like to see for digital solutions and brain health?

We are eager to see the next phases of Amen Clinic’s BrainFitLife mobile app.  Part of this anticipation results from knowing more of where Dr. Daniel Amen stands regarding brain health and overall wellness.

Another area we see further opportunity is a digital solution centered on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) paired with other brain health-boosting activities.  Total Brain seems as though they may be going in this direction.  However, based on the current distribution model, it may not be accessible to the broadest of populations.  Another digital application that appears to be on this general path is the Healthy Minds Program App.

MBSR has been studied for its role in reducing inflammatory markers associated with psychological stress.  Reduced inflammation in the body could help support healthy internal regulations, including brain activity.  Better managed stress may also lead to better sleep, which could also support brain functions.

Emerging applications for clinical consultations or medical-oriented therapies are another rapidly emerging area, such as those incorporating Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Applications from CBT may help support the management of neurological symptoms and incorporate mindfulness.  The availability of mobile solutions of this type was accelerated due, in part, to dynamics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Other self-care versions of mental health apps focus on modalities, such as meditation, and could support brain health and wellness.

None of the applications touched on reducing environmental toxins in daily living environments and personal care routines.  We felt this was a huge red flag.  However, the level of scientific research and product development may not be where it needs to be just yet.  Evidence-based healthcare is there for a reason but may also inadvertently slow some things down.

There is also a range of research on mobile applications used in health consumers with conditions related to the brain, such as Alzheimer’s or stages of dementia.  Another focus area that could be considered a digital solution for boosting brain health is applications that support learning a new language.

The extensive range of scientific factors related to brain health paired with emerging developments in mHealth has led to the current array of solutions we have now.  SharpBrains is a primary resource to track this market.  Digital and mobile solutions for brain health and wellness appear to be a compliment to modern lifestyles.  We expect a further emphasis on this area in the years to come.

Regardless of the modality to nourish and care for our brains, we are clear that lifestyle factors and brain health are definitively intertwined.  Therefore, daily emphasis on nurturing our healthy bodies and minds is quite relevant.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash


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