Launch of first WHO position paper on optimizing brain health across life

Brain health is an evolving concept, attracting increasing attention not only from the health sector but also from wider society, stimulating rich debate – and for good reasons. The brain and central nervous system are the command centre of the human body, controlling both conscious and unconscious body functions and thereby influencing every aspect of life. If our brains are challenged by disease or other factors, this poses significant risks not only to an individual’s overall health and well-being, but also to global development and productivity.

It is estimated that 1 in 3 people will develop a neurological disorder at some point in their life, making neurological disorders the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death. Additionally, 43% of children under the age of five in low- and middle-income countries are believed to miss their developmental potential due to extreme poverty and growth stunting, leading to financial losses and projected 26% lower annual earnings in adulthood.

The new WHO position paper launched on 9 August 2022 presents a framework for understanding brain health and the importance of brain health optimization for all. Brain health can be defined as the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioral and motor domains, allowing a person to realize their full potential over their life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders. Many determinants are known to impact brain health and continuous interactions between these determinants plus an individual’s context lead to lifelong adaptation of brain structure and functioning. The position paper provides insight into the following clusters of determinants:

  • physical health,
  • healthy environments,
  • safety and security,
  • learning and social connection and
  • access to quality services.

Optimizing brain health by addressing these determinants leads to multiple benefits including lower rates of many chronic health conditions – neurological, mental, substance use and physical – as well as improved quality of life and multiple social and economic benefits, all of which contribute to greater well-being and help advance society. The paper demonstrates the relevance of optimizing brain health within the broader context of public health and society and offers practical policy solutions and future directions for the field including specific actions for addressing brain health determinants, ongoing priorities in brain health research, and operationalizing and measuring brain health.

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