Challenge of the Year: 2019

2019 Challenge of the Year: Brain Health Awareness

See the results of our survey in our 2019 Brain Health Survey Infographic

What is Brain Health?

The human brain is the most complex machine in the known universe. It controls our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors; keeps us alive; and is the driving force behind science, art, civilization, and humanity. Despite the importance of the brain, we give surprisingly little attention to brain health. The concept of brain health has been largely limited to older adults and the issue of age-related decline. Instead, brain health should be nurtured across the lifespan, integrated into daily life, and considered essential to overall wellbeing.

Brain health involves the following:

  • Emotional Health – the ability to experience the full range of human emotions, and the resilience to bounce back from negative emotions, thoughts, and experiences

  • Cognitive Health – the ability to think, remember, pay attention, plan, understand, learn, communicate, make decisions, and adapt to challenges

  • Physical Health – movement, strength, energy, sensation, digestion, breathing, circulation, and other bodily functions

Epilepsy and its treatment affect the brain in a number of ways, which, in turn, can affect emotional, cognitive, and physical health. While it’s important for everyone to pay attention to brain health, it’s especially important for people with epilepsy.

Protecting and Promoting Brain Health

There are some things about your brain that may be hard or impossible to change, such as structural or genetic features. These changes can sometimes cause seizures and can also contribute to changes in emotional, cognitive, and physical functions. Fortunately, there are many things about the brain that we can influence, and this can improve brain health and, in many cases, reduce seizures. The following are some of the key things we can do to promote brain health:

  • Exercise – Regular physical activity reduces stress, promotes healthy sleep, improves mood, increases cardiovascular health, and controls weight – all of which promotes a healthy brain. Exercise also improves cognitive function and can even promote the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus (an area of the brain involved in memory and mood).

  • Eat a healthy diet – You are what you eat. The food we consume directly affects brain function and even brain structure. Processed meats, fried foods, partially hydrogenated oils, and refined sugars and carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, pastries, etc.) increase the risk of inflammation, cerebrovascular disease, and other chronic health conditions that can negatively affect brain health. Some foods that support brain health include green, leafy vegetables; fatty fish; nuts; tomatoes; berries and other fruits; olive oil; and tea and/or coffee. Drinking plenty of water is important as well – impacting mood, energy level, and cognitive function.

  • Sleep well – Sleep is an active and essential time for your brain – not just a time for your brain to “rest.” Your brain is busy during sleep, and if you’re not getting enough sleep or the quality of your sleep is poor, your brain health will suffer. This includes daytime drowsiness, low energy, difficulty with concentration, mood problems, increased seizures, and much more. Proper sleep habits should help, but if they don’t, be sure to talk with your neurologist to see if a sleep disorder, seizures, or treatment side effects might be interfering with sleep.

  • Manage stress – In addition to being a common seizure trigger, stress also plays a key role in depression and anxiety disorders. It can also have a negative impact on cognitive function, immune function, and physical health. While stress is an inevitable part of life, you can limit or change the things that cause stress, change how you think about these things, or change how your body responds to stress. This includes practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, self-observation, improving your time-management and organization, and improving your communication and conflict resolution skills.

  • Practice positivity – Research in the field of positive psychology has shown extensive evidence of the power of positivity. Seeking out pleasurable activities and savoring these experiences, optimism, engagement and accomplishment, helping others, gratitude, and finding meaning and purpose all contribute to brain health and overall wellbeing.

  • Protect the brain from trauma – An injury to the brain can result in a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. Wearing a helmet while biking and playing certain sports (e.g. skiing, football, hockey, skateboarding); using a seatbelt or age-appropriate car seat; and seeking help if you’re exposed to violence can all reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury. If you have seizures that cause falls, consider what you can do improve safety in the home (e.g. adding padded carpeting, removing unnecessary furniture, avoiding stairs, etc.).

  • Avoid smoking and abuse of alcohol or drugs – Smoking and alcohol or drug abuse increase the risk of cognitive decline, and quitting reduces that risk. Furthermore, substance abuse can make seizures worse, either directly or by interfering with antiseizure medication. It can also increase the risk of brain injury through car accidents, falls, overdosing, and violence. If you struggle with smoking or substance abuse, it’s never too late to ask for help.

  • Seek appropriate healthcare – Get regular check-ups with your doctor to monitor for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and other conditions that can negatively affect brain health. See a mental health professional if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety. Get a neuropsychological evaluation if you’re experiencing difficulties with memory, attention, or other cognitive functions. See an epileptologist to explore other treatment options if medications aren’t fully controlling your seizures. Professionals are out there to help you maximize your brain health – don’t be afraid to use them.

  • Engage in new and challenging activities – The term “use it or lose it” applies to your brain as well as your muscles. You can sharpen your cognitive abilities by taking a class, learning a new skill, playing games, making art or music, or any other activity that encourages you to use your brain in a different way. Variety and challenge are important – push yourself out of your comfort zone (only doing things you’re already good at won’t help as much).

  • Seek out social activity – A strong social network and regular social activity can help to reduce stress, prevent depression, provide intellectual stimulation, and stave off cognitive decline. Friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances can also provide tangible support and information as you manage epilepsy and other challenges in life. Keep your brain healthy by nurturing existing relationships and seeking opportunities to form new ones.

Through our 2019 Challenge of the Year, Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan will raise awareness of the importance of brain health across the lifespan. In doing so, we hope to encourage people to take a more active role in managing not only their epilepsy, but their emotional, cognitive, and physical health as well. If you have ideas on how to raise brain health awareness or you'd like to be involved in our efforts, please contact Russ Derry at 800-377-6226 ext. 1302 or

Learn More Through These 2019 Programs and Events

Additional Resources