The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and arguably the most important. It initiates body movement, processes sensory input, controls behavior, and houses thoughts and memories. Brain diseases and dysfunctions can therefore be devastating to an individual’s well-being and quality of life. Neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, cause the brain and nerves to deteriorate over time. Cerebrovascular diseases, like stroke, are caused by damage to the brain that disrupts its ability to communicate with other body systems. Brain tumors, both cancerous and noncancerous, also pose risks to health and can disrupt normal brain function. 3 in 5 Americans will develop a brain disease in their lifetime. Stroke is a leading cause of death in the United States, as well as the most common cause of adult disability.
Deaths from stroke have been on the decline in the last 50 years due to better control of risk factors, like diabetes, hypertension, and smoking. Deaths from Alzheimer’s disease, however, doubled between 2000 and 2019. Risk factors for brain diseases vary by type of disease, but activity level, diet, and genetics all play a part in brain health. Heart health is also an important risk factor. According to the American Heart Association, 80% of brain disease can be linked to cardiovascular disease. Additionally, brain conditions like stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s are often diseases of aging and older adults, who are affected more by brain diseases than any other age group.
Even as improvements have been made in research and prevention of brain diseases, not all Americans have reaped the benefits. Older Black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias than older white Americans. Studies have shown that Black people between 45 and 54 die from strokes at triple the rate of their white counterparts. People of color also experience discrimination and barriers in access to health care for brain diseases. One study found that 50% of Black Americans, 42% of Native Americans, 34% of Asian Americans, and 33% of Hispanic Americans reported discrimination when seeking Alzheimer’s care, compared to only 9% of white Americans.
Improving brain health stands to improve society’s overall health and well-being. Efforts to prevent certain risk factors like cardiovascular disease and diabetes can improve brain health at scale. Improving access to preventative care and treatment of brain diseases for older adults, particularly older people of color, could also improve brain health at large. Programs that help people stay mentally and socially active, quit smoking, and eat healthier can be used to support brain health at the community level.