A Health Coach For Your Brain

The Brain Health Champion initiative helps patients protect their cognitive health through nutrition, exercise, and other activities.

More than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease dementia. Another 8 million to 10 million people older than 65 live with mild cognitive impairment, which can represent an earlier stage of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Certain health behaviors, including eating nutritious foods, exercising, and engaging in social and cognitive activities, lower the risk of dementia and brain deterioration, according to research conducted in the U.S. and globally. Knowing the potential of these behaviors, Brigham neurologists Kirk Daffner, MD, and Seth Gale, MD, launched the Brain Health Champion initiative to determine if a health coach could help motivate patients to adopt these habits.

It’s clear that modifying risk factors decreases instances of dementia.

Seth Gale, MD
Following the first six-month pilot study, which enrolled 40 adults with mild cognitive impairment, Gale says, “Our results were simple and profound. We saw significant differences in behaviors, and thus dementia risk, among participants assigned to the health coach group compared with the control group, who received limited physician counseling.”

Building on this success, the team is conducting a second study to see if combining health coaches and technology could benefit people who have cognitive decline or high dementia risk. Participants use mobile health technology to video chat with their health coaches weekly, meet with a dietician, and track food intake, sleep, and activity.

“This study woke me up,” says participant Susan Liotta, age 70. “I’m more mindful of what I eat and am more active. Having the coach changed my habits.”

Based on the team’s findings and endorsement from study participants, the physician-scientists are seeking partners to help fund a pilot clinical care program. As they continue collecting promising data, they are optimistic that health insurers will see how this approach works over a larger healthcare network, with significant long-term cost savings.

“It’s clear that modifying certain risk factors decreases the incidence of dementia,” Gale says. “A large-scale, effective, evidence-based, brain health promotion program could certainly make a dent in the enormous public health and economic burden caused by these diseases.”

Please visit brainhealth.bwh.harvard.edu to learn more about the Brain Health Champion initiative and related efforts.