Strengthening and maintaining brain health is important for people of all ages, particularly as we grow older and may experience changes in memory and thinking. Although this topic is a considerable concern for many older adults, there remains stigma around public dialogue, and accessible resources promoting brain health as we age are limited. A group of researchers, nurses, social workers, and students at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health are working to help older adults develop the knowledge and tools needed to protect their brain health and the know-how to connect with resources and extra support when needed.
“The unique needs of older adults necessitate innovative and accessible solutions, and I believe scientists have a major role to play in delivering those solutions here and now,” says Andrea Gilmore-Bykovskyi, PhD, RN, associate vice chair of research and associate professor in the BerbeeWalsh Department of Emergency Medicine, UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Gilmore-Bykovskyi’s research lab is dedicated to improving care for people affected by aging-related changes in brain health, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
In 2017, the lab launched the Brain Health Equity Initiative with the goal of fostering community-responsive partnerships and programs to promote healthy brain aging. The initiative reflects Dr. Gilmore-Bykovskyi’s commitment to ensuring scientific progress is accompanied by community investment and capacity building — particularly among those disproportionately affected by changes in brain health.
As a part of this work, the Brain Health Equity Initiative team (or Brain Health Team) developed a novel, community-based brain health promotion program in 2019 called Brain & Body Fitness in collaboration with Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR) and the Dane County Aging & Disability Resource Center (ADRC).
Brain & Body Fitness hosts weekly meetings over the course of 1-2 months focused on brain health education, physical exercise, and cognitively stimulating activities and conversation. The program is informed by research on cognitive aging and cognitive resilience, and is designed for those who are concerned about changes they notice in their memory and thinking or who want to improve their physical and mental well-being.
“We developed Brain & Body Fitness because evidence-informed programming for brain health promotion is not readily available at a large scale,” notes Gilmore-Bykovskyi. “This is despite the fact that nearly 2/3 of older adults are worried about their brain health and risk for developing dementia. It is important we fill this gap in brain health education to promote healthy aging for everyone.”
The Brain Health Team was excited to return to in-person classes at MSCR this April after transitioning to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, the team has also made a concerted effort to connect with community organizations and senior centers throughout Dane County to offer Brain & Body Fitness programming in new settings. “It is wonderful to see the program reaching so many more seniors across the Madison area, particularly those who missed that sense of community during the height of the pandemic,” says Lilli Kay, MSW, program coordinator and a Spring 2023 master’s program graduate of UW–Madison’s Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work.
A unique focus of the Brain & Body Fitness program is that it looks beyond brain health education and cognitively stimulating activities. The program incorporates opportunities for social engagement and sharing, with a focus on de-stigmatizing conversations on aging and brain health changes.
“Studies show that these stigmas can be detrimental to older adults’ physical and mental health, suggesting that stigma itself is a risk factor for diminished brain health. That’s why reducing stigma is a critical goal of this program,” says Gilmore-Bykovskyi.
The Brain & Body Fitness program encourages reciprocity, such that participants often share different personal and familial experiences with brain and physical health, and facilitators share evidence-informed strategies for managing the impacts of changes in memory. Participants also share strategies they have implemented in their own lives, further adding to the collective learning process.
Facilitators share resources related to aging and brain health and help connect participants with those resources when needed. “We have learned that many of our participants have questions about what resources are available, particularly around cognitive testing, caregiving, transportation, and home chores. It’s been very meaningful to create a space in which participants feel comfortable coming forward with questions about resources that could really make a difference in their lives beyond the few hours we get to spend together through the program,” says Laura Block, a nurse and PhD student at the UW-Madison School of Nursing who is also a volunteer facilitator for the program.
Brain & Body Fitness program participants say they feel a sense of connection through the program and value it as a way to stay active and engaged. Many note they appreciate the tangible practices they learn to implement in their daily lives, such as word finding strategies. They also value the knowledge they gain about brain health, including early signs of dementia, how to eat a brain-healthy diet, and benefits of mindfulness. But perhaps most importantly, participants appreciate the opportunity to socialize and build relationships with peers who are also concerned about their brain health.
One participant who has enrolled in every Brain & Body Fitness session with MSCR since it launched in 2019, hopes the program will be made available even more widely and often because – in the words of SallyJo – the program is “a must-do for people interested in learning healthy aging strategies!”