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by Sonya Collins
Updated August 19, 2022
Have you talked to your doctor about your — or a loved one’s — brain health? You may not know this, but if you are a Medicare enrollee age 65 or older, a cognitive assessment is generally included for free in your annual wellness exam. Unfortunately, statistics show that not everyone gets that assessment.
But you don’t have to reach a certain age or have any signs of memory loss at all to start this important conversation with your doctor. In fact, make a point of bringing it up at your next appointment.
“We need to change the script for when we talk about brain health. I think people should be talking to their doctors about brain health throughout the lifespan,” says Jessica Caldwell, a neuropsychologist and director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas. But if you haven’t done this yet, no problem. There are benefits to talking to your doctor about brain health at any point in your life.
Here’s why you should start a conversation with your doctor about your brain health.
1. If you don’t start the conversation, it might not happen
At an annual physical, doctors check your blood pressure and pulse. They look in your ears and down your throat. They check your weight and cholesterol, too. Anything abnormal in these areas can point to possible health problems and trigger a discussion about it. But none of these abnormalities would necessarily lead to a conversation about brain health.
You might have to bring up the topic yourself.
“Some doctors spend only a brief amount of time trying to review a whole lot of medical information, so this kind of discussion opener can be a helpful reminder to doctors that we’ve got to focus on memory [and other brain issues] during the appointment as well,” says Caldwell.
2. You can get ahead — or plan ahead
A conversation with your doctor about brain health may help you get ahead of potential problems. When someone has a little bit of memory loss, doctors call that “mild cognitive impairment.” This can go on to become dementia or it can just stay as it is. But research shows that certain lifestyle changes — like daily exercise — bring brain benefits even for people who already have mild cognitive impairment.
The point is not to wait until you notice a decline, says Fiorella Perez, a geriatrician at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. “You want to really be proactive about your brain health from early on.”
No matter what this conversation uncovers, it will help you plan for what’s next. If you find out that you have a problem, you can get referrals to specialists, learn what to expect in the future and plan for it. If your doctor doesn’t see anything wrong, you’ll probably come away with some tips on how to keep it that way.
3. At any age, you can take action
You should talk to your doctor about your brain health because, at virtually any phase of your life, there are things you can do to make your brain healthier.
Research shows that there are actions you can take at any stage of your life — adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and older age — to help you maintain long-term brain health and prevent the loss of thinking skills down the road.
“A conversation with your doctor might give you the added push you need to start doing these things,” Caldwell says.
Your doctor can talk to you about the impact your current lifestyle and family history may have on your future brain health and offer steps you can take to maintain optimum brain function for as many years as possible.
“It’s always a great time,” Caldwell says, “no matter your age, to start that conversation.”
4. Brain health is health
And you should have a discussion about brain health, because it’s a crucial part of your overall health. It’s just as important to know where you stand in terms of brain health as it is to know about the health of your heart and lungs.
“Your brain is another organ in your body, just like your heart, just like your kidneys,” says Perez. “Just like you try to prevent bad health outcomes for your heart, you have to do the same for your brain.”
In fact, she adds, all those conditions that we think of as heart risks — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity — are risks for your brain, too.
“Many people don’t realize that their other health conditions could be affecting their brain health,” Perez says. “If you don’t have good control, for example, of blood pressure or diabetes, these can lead to damage in your brain cells and the arteries in your brain.”
5. You should know what’s normal — and not
You don’t want to worry that you are losing your mind every time you misplace your car keys or forget the name of the person you met yesterday. When you have a conversation with your doctor about brain health, you can find out exactly what is and isn’t a normal part of aging.
“You need to ask those questions,” Perez says, “so that your doctor can tell you whether it sounds normal or whether you should investigate further.”
6. Screenings are available
If your doctor wants to investigate further, screenings are available. A memory screening can give doctors an idea of whether your problems are likely dementia-related or stem from something else. These screenings also provide a baseline so that when you follow up in six months, you can see whether you’re doing better, worse or the same and then take the right action.
• "Opportunities for enhancing brain health across the lifespan," BJPsych Advances, March 2021. This scientific paper explores the research behind how various lifestyle interventions can help promote brain health and preserve cognitive function. The authors also discuss the link between strong cognitive ability earlier in life and a reduced risk of cognitive impairment later in life, and they argue that "it is never too early to start promoting brain health." Read the full study.
• "Physical Activity, Cognition, and Brain Outcomes: A Review of the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, June 2019. This review of research, conducted in part for the 2018 Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee, looked at systematic reviews, meta-analyses and pooled analyses. Researchers found evidence that moderate to vigorous physical activity can improve a person's cognitive function throughout their lifespan. Read the full study.