Updated: Nov 11, 2022
In a previous article, I addressed how our physical health can impact our brain health and mental health. In this blog, I will expand on different determinants that can help us nurture brain health and consequently our mental health. In my eyes, they are aspects which are less talked about but they can have just as profound an impact. I will touch base on how aspects such as safety, opportunity for lifelong learning and social connection can play a huge role in setting our brains and mental health up for success.
How keeping us safe can improve our brain health
Trauma can take various shapes and sizes but regardless of how severe a trauma is, it can have an important impact on brain development and it can also lead to getting us stuck in a fight, flight or freeze response which will in turn affect the functioning of our body, brain and mind. There is a wonderful book called "The Body Keeps the Score" written by Bessel Van Der Kolk that describes how abuse, maltreatment, neglect, treat of physical harm, absence of stable and safe housing at home but also within the community can deeply affect our brain development and shape some of our physical and emotional responses.
It goes without saying that humanitarian crises such as civil unrest or wars as well as emergency crisis such as natural disasters or man made disasters, can also translate into extremely traumatic experiences for an individual and their community. These will impact their sense of safety and disrupt their lives in ways that they had never imagined. Not only can it ultimately pose a treat to their physical safety but also to their state of brain health and mental health.
The chronic stress triggered by un-safe environments (regardless of their origin) can lead to disruption in brain-directed stress physiology and also lead to a number of inflammatory conditions  that can ultimately impact our brain health and overall mental health.
Let's explore the place of lifelong learning in brain health and mental health
Although the opportunities to influence positively cognitive, social and emotional learnings is at its most crucial for brain development during infancy and early childhood (which is when our brain are developing at a lightening rate), ongoing learning and cognitive stimulation can benefit our brain health throughout our life course.
Ongoing learning is associated with better cognitive functioning later in life which can minimise our risk of developing brain disorders such as dementia. There is also a concept named neuroplasticity which allows for the creation of new neuronal axons and synapses...even as we age. So challenging ourselves to learn new things can have a protecting effect on the brain.
The quality of our early learning and our access to formal education can also translate in better cognitive function and socio-economic outcomes later in life. The costs of inaction in early
life for children at risk are high, with toxic stress linked to school attrition, incarceration and lower economic productivity.  Education has also been linked to indicators of life outcomes such as employment, income, and social status. The logic behind greater levels of education being that individuals are presented with a more ample number of choices and options throughout their lifetime and a greater level of job satisfaction...both having the potential to lead to an overall improved health and well-being.
How can social connection positively influence our brain health and mental health?
Earlier in this blog I have already covered how various types of trauma and how the level of nurture we were exposed to in early childhood can influence brain health and mental health. This very much falls under social connection as well, but in this section I'd like to focus on how day to day social interactions are crucial in maintaining a certain level of brain health and mental health.
I think the pandemic has really shown us how important social connections are in our everyday life. Many may have been privy to how social isolation and loneliness have impacted their brain health and mental health. Social support plays a huge part in an individual's ability to cope with every day stress that we all experience in our lives...whether we live with a particular health condition or not. The absence of support can limit the number of options that are made available to us, induce further stress and further impact our executive functioning, emotional regulation and memory as well.
Social connection also allows for meaningful experiences to take place, enhances mental stimulation and allows for new learnings of all kind to take place. When we are more connected, we are likely to feel lower levels of anxiety & depression and to feel happier as a whole. Social connection is an important and valuable aspect of our lives. We are social creatures and connecting with others is one of our fundamental need. No wonder social connection has such an impact on our physical health, brain health and mental health.
In addition to our physical health, safety, learnings and social connection have a real impact on nurturing our brain health and mental health. It is important not to overlook those factors when addressing brain health as they can be powerful tools to explore in nurturing our well-being and mental health.
: Samuel LJ, Szanton SL, Wolff JL, Ornstein KA, Parker LJ, Gitlin LN. Socioeconomic disparities in six-year incident dementia in a nationally representative cohort of U.S. older adults: an examination of financial resources. BMC Geriatrics. 2020;20:156. doi:10.1186/s12877-020-01553-4.
: Gelaye B, Foster S, Bhasin M, Tawakol A, Fricchione G. SARS-CoV-2 morbidity and mortality in racial/ethnic minority populations: a window into the stress related inflammatory basis of health disparities? Brain Behav Immun Health. 2020;9:100158. doi:10.1016/j. bbih.2020.100158.
: Shonkoff JP, Garner AS. The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics. 2012;129:e232—46. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2663.