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In February of 2024, HERO members convened at the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. We found close alignments between Meharry’s commitment to health equity and HERO’s vision of well-being. Our thanks to Dr. Kevin Billups, Executive Director of the Meharry Men’s Health Program and Professor of Medicine at Meharry Medical College who welcomed HERO members and shared inspiring stories grounded in Meharry history.

This think tank focus was inspired by demographic trends showing the Baby Boomer generation makes up nearly thirty percent of the U.S. labor market. A major transformation is afoot with about 10,000 people turning 65 each day for the next two decades. Long life spans, the need to keep socially active, and financial considerations are personal reasons for staying at work. What’s more, most employers covet the expertise and experience of older workers and the benefits of age-diverse teams in fostering innovation. With an aging workforce comes greater sensitivity to the role of brain health in employee performance.

In these Proceedings, you will see how brain health relates to our abilities to contribute productively at work and in our communities. This includes mental health, coping, and resiliency, as well as brain health practices that reduce cognitive decline and prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In this Think Tank we assembled an exemplary faculty of experts and business leaders who explored the role of employers in supporting the lifestyle factors like sleep, diet, stress management, social connections, and physical activity that impact emotional well-being and cognitive functioning.

The most common type of age discrimination is simply that of hearing negative comments about a worker’s age. In our small group discussions, we examined this and other common forms of ageism experienced by workers. We also reviewed the evidence on the impact of mental health support, cognitive training programs such as memory games and problem-solving tasks, and the role of mindfulness exercises and flexible work arrangements that empower employees to improve self-care of brain health.

Affirming how timely this think tank topic was, both in the science community and the popular press, two studies garnered considerable attention in the month of the think tank. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study considered to be the first to show that healthy lifestyle practices can help maintain cognitive functioning even in older adults with Alzheimer’s disease. Research has long shown that physical activity plays a big role in preventing and managing depression. More recently brain scientists have been examining the role of a healthy lifestyle in supporting mental acuity. Researchers concluded lifestyle builds a cognitive reserve that can help maintain cognitive abilities in spite of the pathologies related to dementia.

A common theme throughout this Think Tank was how the lifestyle pillars that bolster heart health and prevent cancer are the very same pillars that support brain health and mental health. Another study that offered insights and examples of the cautions we should take in developing brain health best practices in workplace settings was published in the Industrial Relations Journal. It was a study of British employees in over 200 organizations that found that participants in individual level mental health interventions were ‘no better off’ than non-participants.

HERO Senior Fellow Paul Terry published a review of the research that parses out the limitations of the study’s methods, not the least of which is that the data available offered no information about the scope or frequency of the interventions. The most effective intervention uncovered in the British mental health study was the positive mental health impact of volunteerism. Volunteerism attracted more participation than any other offering, albeit, a modest ten percent. But results showed participants reported both significant improvements in subjective well-being as well as improvements in subjective accounts of the work environment. Increases in a sense of purpose, accomplishment and social resources were all well-being byproducts of volunteering. These benefits affirm the investments HERO researchers have made in integrating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion related scoring into the HERO Health and Well-Being Best Practices Scorecard in Collaboration with Mercer© (HERO Scorecard).

Though the mental health intervention researchers stated an interest in exploring ‘what works for whom in what circumstances’ they simply did not have a dataset up to the task of answering that vital question. In HERO’s partnership with NIOSH, we have been promoting the use of the NIOSH WellBQ survey of individual level well-being at work. Once we routinely combine such individual level data with organizational level data about culture, policies and environmental supports, such as is found in the HERO Scorecard, only then will we be able to answer questions about the right balance between individual and organizational level interventions.

Read on in these Brain Health and the Aging Workforce Proceedings to learn more about how this kind of research can help inform brain health interventions and practices going forward.


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