Tackling Brain Health with Technological Innovations

May 18, 2015 Gillian Christie and Vera Oziransky

Earlier this month, New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, unveiled a proposal to add $54 million for mental health programs over the next fiscal year in order to “[develop] a more effective and inclusive mental health system — one that meets the needs of New Yorkers where they live.” This timely announcement coincides with commemorations of May as Mental Health Month in the US.

That being said, the pressing need to address mental health is not limited to the US, where nearly one-fifth of the population experienced mental illness in the past year. Globally, more than 350 million people suffer from depression, the leading cause of disability worldwide. In the UK one in four adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any year, and in Australia it was estimated that 20% of the population experienced a mental health disorder in the previous year.

Mental illness influences the onset and progression of chronic diseases by impacting underlying modifiable risk factors such as tobacco use, physical inactivity, poor diet, and harmful alcohol use. Untreated mental illness is debilitating and often occurs alongside other morbidities such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

In addition, stigma is pervasive and prevents access to mental health services. In the US, only one in three people who need mental health care receive it. To overcome challenges associated with poor mental health, the stigma of mental illness must be addressed head-on. It is also essential to leverage the evidence on the prevention of mental illness. Physical activity has been demonstrated to improve symptoms in people with mild to moderate depression and has also been shown to aid with prevention of cognitive decline. Control of blood pressure, negatively impacted by depression, has also been found to be critical to preventing cognitive decline, further demonstrating common risk factors for mental and cognitive health, two distinct but related topics that both fall under the broader umbrella of brain health.

Personalized health technologies have emerged as an innovative solution to fill the prevailing gap in mental health care. Growing evidence demonstrates that these technologies, including online services, can be as effective as undertaking face-to-face sessions with a therapist. In the UK, the NHS recently released five mobile platforms to help those coping with mental illness, including: Beating the Blues, Big White Wall, FearFighter, Ieso Digital Health, and SilverCloud. These platforms enable individuals suffering from mental illness to anonymously access quality mental health services, including validated online counselors and peer support, in real time. In parallel, mobile applications – Brain HQ, Lumosity, and FitBrains – that target improved brain health are additionally emerging and being adopted to improve cognitive functioning and resilience. Finally, there has been an increase in the number of technology patents for reading brainwaves. While many of these technologies – and the evidence demonstrating their effectiveness – are in their infancy, they are likely to proliferate moving forward.

Many of these personalized health technologies also have applicability to the rapidly growing older adult population. The recent report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action, highlights technologies emerging to facilitate better quality of life for older adults. Research on cognitive aging has also generated evidence demonstrating which interventions don’t work for improvement in cognitive aging, such as food supplements, and the IOM calls for additional evidence on related technologies.

Will technology be a solution to creating stigma-free environments? Can it improve access to quality mental health services across the lifespan? The Vitality Institute is supportive of existing anti-stigma campaigns such as #TimeToTalk and #StrongerThanStigma, and echoes the call for additional research on technologies that will generate solutions for better brain health.

 

What strategies exist to overcome poor mental health inside and outside of the workplace? How is mental health dealt with in your organization? We would love to hear from you! Tweet at the Vitality Institute @VitalityInst

Image credit: Daniel Fryer

 

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