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Is Brain Health the Next Big Thing?

Employers are just now starting to take notice of the merits of programs aimed at reducing employee stress -- and the costs associated with stress -- by training the brain to have a positive outlook.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013
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Brain health, long thought to be a peripheral and alternative component of corporate health and wellness programs, is fast becoming more mainstreamed and accepted as an answer to employee stress and the costs associated with it.

A recent report by San Francisco-based SharpBrains, The Dig­i­tal Brain Health Mar­ket 2012–2020, predicts brain health will be a $3 billion industry by 2015 and will double to $6 billion by 2020 as more people turn to this form of wellness.

"Compared to physical fitness, the fitness of the brain is often overlooked by both individuals and health systems," says Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains, "but we see positive and broad changes on how brain health is defined, monitored, maintained and enhanced across the lifespan, and digital platforms are going to play a key role."

The report lays out 10 predictions for brain health's growth likely to be realized via digital platforms before the end of 2013. Key among them: More than 1 million adults in North America alone will take a self-administered annual brain health check-up via their iPad or Android tablet, biometrics-aided meditation will become the next big thing in corporate and consumer wellness, insomnia and depression will be first-line treated with computerized cognitive behavioral therapy in at least two national health services, and at least one major insurer will launch an educational campaign to help adults proactively take charge of their own "brain fitness" by navigating emerging research and digital brain-health tools.

Another sign of brain health's move forward, particularly as baby boomers continue working and aging, came Jan. 8 at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where San Francisco-based Posit Science, a brain-health provider, and San Diego-based GreatCall, a wireless-products-and-services provider, announced their partnership and release of Brain Games on GreatCall's Jitterbug cell phone. The two games, "Quick Match" and "Make a Pair," will aim to improve memory and cognitive thinking, according to their joint press announcement.

"Studies show that these games significantly improve cognitive function in older adults," says Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science. "They improve the brain's ability to take in information from the environment quickly and accurately -- which, in turn, improves everything from health-related quality of life to the ability to retain independence later in life."

And you can add to all this the growing number of brain-health providers -- such as Posit Health, SharpBrain, Lumosity and Brain Resource Inc. -- and the growing number of companies that will begin offering employees these vendors' products as components of their wellness programs, says Gregory Bayer, CEO of San Francisco-based Brain Resource Inc. As of now, he says, the movement in corporate America is still confined to the early adopters -- Aetna and Nationwide to name two -- but that soon will be changing.

"You will be seeing continued adoption and expansion [among employers]," says Bayer, "because, in essence, you're working with the most important organ in the body [and it's crucial] in terms of peak performance."

So what is brain health, exactly?

As Bayer puts it, it's a new approach to general health in which, "by doing the brain exercises and games, people build better emotional resilience and control that can help them problem-solve their issue of concern . . . and build cognitive fitness" in general.

In a piece he wrote Jan. 7 for The Huffington Post, he describes brain-based health solutions as "reinventing the approach to what is a chronic and growing problem in this country" -- stress.

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"Although many Americans recognize that stress can have an impact on their health and well-being," he writes, "they don't always take action. We know that too much stress or prolonged periods of stress can be bad for your health. Many people who experience too much stress can end up with chronic illness such as depression, obesity -- leading to Type 2 diabetes -- and heart disease . . .  .

"Training the brain to have a positive outlook can help people deal with stress more effectively, which can build resilience and may also lead to personal success."

He goes on to describe a recent case study conducted by Nationwide in which employees who participated in a comprehensive brain-training program had a 5-percent increase in positive thinking, a 9-percent increase in emotional resilience and an 8-percent increase in social skills. The company also found an 8-percent improvement in presenteeism -- being at work but barely functioning due to illness -- and a 5-percent reduction in absenteeism among its highest-risk employees.

"Not only is brain health being increasingly positioned as part of a health-and-productivity continuum and empowering employees working in a fitness continuum," says Bayer, "but it's also really teaching them the importance of the brain and if there's a threat to brain health.

"That's a very important part of our program, helping them interpret and assess the threats to brain health," he adds. "We're not providing tutorials here, but a site where you can get to know your brain and challenge your brain, through programs on thinking, feeling and so forth.

"Then that assessment guides you to the most advantageous training you can engage in. Then, through that active training, you see your own ability to play the games to build that brain strength," he says. "Basically, you're training neuro-circuits to be more attentive to the environment, evaluate threats more productively and positively," and create stronger mental barriers to stress.

As part of the already burgeoning wellness movement, Bayer says, "brain health is really taking off."

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