NIH seeks strategies to preserve brain health

February 21, 2006

With the rapid aging of the population, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is intensifying the search for strategies to preserve brain health as people grow older. The effort moved an important step forward today with a report by an expert panel to the NIH, suggesting a number of promising avenues for maintaining or enhancing cognitive and emotional function. Specifically, the group said, education, cardiovascular health, physical activity, psychosocial factors and genetics appear to be associated with brain health with age, and research aimed at directly testing the effectiveness of interventions in several of these areas deserves further attention.

The report is published online today in Alzheimer's and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association. It is a product of the Critical Evaluation Study Committee, a panel of experts appointed by NIH and led by Hugh Hendrie, M.B., Ch.B., D.Sc., of Indiana University, Indianapolis. The committee evaluated several large on-going studies of older adults for current scientific knowledge on brain health.

"Three NIH institutes--the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)--established the NIH Cognitive and Emotional Health Project to coordinate and accelerate research leading to interventions for neurological health," says NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. "This report suggests a future direction of research and is a terrific example of what we can learn when scientists of diverse specialties work together on a complex health issue."

Hendrie and colleagues cited demographic pressures to find ways to maintain cognitive and emotional health with age. Approximately 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, and additional numbers of older people experience less severe, but still problematic cognitive impairment with the risk of such cognitive decline increasing with age. In one area of emotional health - depression - the everyday function of an estimated two million older adults is also threatened, according to NIMH.

"With more Americans living well into their 70s, 80s and 90s, developing strategies to preserve cognitive and emotional health as we grow older is a major public health goal," says Richard J. Hodes, M.D., Director of the NIA. "This report analyzes research identifying factors that are associated with cognitive and emotional health and most importantly describes several directions for testing interventions to determine their effectiveness in improving cognition and emotional health."

The panel broadly discussed a change in the focus of brain research. In addition to studying specific causes of brain disease and dysfunction, research also should approach cognition and emotion from the opposite direction--looking at what works to preserve brain health. "We set up the Cognitive and Emotional Health Project in recognition of changed thinking. In this report, the committee specifically articulates a new paradigm for research focused on health rather than dysfunction," says NINDS Director Story C. Landis, Ph.D.

Another major theme emphasized the interconnectedness between cognitive and emotional health. Cognitive health and emotional well-being are "inextricably linked," the report concludes, and efforts should be made to examine them simultaneously.

"Cognitive decline and emotional stress in older people involve a number of physiological and psychological processes going on at the same time," says Thomas Insel, M.D., Director of NIMH. "This report highlights the need to better understand this interrelatedness if we are going to devise effective ways to maintain brain health."

The evaluation committee reviewed scientific data from 36 large, ongoing studies of aging and identified more than 40 separate factors that may play a role in cognitive and emotional health. Those highlighted in the report are summarized below, including those in which possible interventions might be explored:

Details of the research papers evaluated by the panel are available online at http://www.biostat.iupui.edu/~sgao/healthybrain/hblogin.asp. The Cognitive and Emotional Health Project's searchable database of a large number of studies on age and cognitive and emotional function can be found on the NIH website at http://trans.nih.gov/CEHP.
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The NIH, a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research. For more information about research and health, visit http://www.nih.gov or the websites of the three institutes involved in the Cognitive and Emotional Health Project:

National Institute on Aging, www.nia.nih.gov
National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, www.ninds.nih.gov

NIH/National Institute on Aging

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