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Healthy Brains for a Healthy Organization

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Fri Aug 16 2013

Healthy Brains for a Healthy Organization
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In response to the growing costs of health care, many organizations have invested in wellness programs, hoping to prevent costly medical care for serious, partially preventable conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and lung cancer. In fact, a recent study indicates that for every dollar spent on wellness programs, $4 of health care costs are avoided. If you are considering or managing a wellness plan, you might want to include brain health in your program. Here’s why:

  • By 2020, 25 percent of working Americans will be 55 or older.

  • Roughly 40 percent of workers who retire today return to work in some fashion, often as contractors, consultants, or part-time employees.

  • Older workers comprise the fastest-growing segment of the workforce.

  • As we age, our brain is subject to cognitive decline, making it harder to concentrate, memorize, and perform other key cognitive functions that are critical to workplace performance.

If our aging workforce is to remain productive, employers need to encourage and support brain health.

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Challenge: we don’t know enough

While it is pretty clear that we can all benefit from taking care of our brains at any age, the problem is that we just know enough about how the brain ages—or how we can stop or slow down the effects of age. In fact, scientists are still struggling with how to separate the signs of “normal aging” with those of early dementia or serious illness. Good nutrition and exercise help keep brains healthy

A common culprit of cognitive decline is a decrease in blood flow within the brain, caused by high cholesterol and high blood pressure. These blockages result in mini-strokes. Often undetected, these strokes damage the brain in small ways that have big cumulative effects. Just like any other organ in your body, the brain is affected by the overall health of the individual.

Existing employee health programs that concentrate on maintaining healthy weight, eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, and regular exercise will also support healthy brains. The contrary is also true: Poor nutrition and lack of exercise contributes to general cognitive decline.

Use it or lose it

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In this sense, the brain is like a muscle. People who participate in vigorous mental exercise later in life have a much greater chance of slowing or stopping cognitive decline. More than 29 percent of PhDs and engineers are working full-time after age 69, indicating that a more highly educated workforce may also be a more brain-healthy one.

The brain continues to produce new neurons, form new pathways, and learn new things throughout our lives. So the very fact that the aging workforce is, in fact, working is helping to keep those employees’ brains healthy.

Aging brains have been shown to be more innovative and more empathetic than younger brains, making seniors highly valuable members of any project team.

Like a muscle, the brain gets stronger through repeated use and cross-training. Studies show that some brain activities are particularly useful in maintaining brain health, including:

  • solving puzzles and math problems

  • playing or composing music

  • learning a language

  • juggling.

Employee wellness programs of the future

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We talk a lot about the future in this blog. Maybe that’s because the field of neuroscience is pointing us to tantalizing applications that aren’t quite realized yet, but are looming on the horizon. But maybe the future is actually within reach today, if we only exercise our brains to solve a few key puzzles. Should existing employee wellness programs address brain health? The answer to this question just might be a “no-brainer.”

For more on neuroscience applications for human capital, check out the full blog series here.

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