Next Generation Brain Health
Atlantic Fellows Laura Booi and Francesca Farina discuss the stark knowledge gap around brain health in young adults and their Next Generation Brain Health Study.
This week, Chris Hemsworth – a young, A-list celebrity most known for his role as Thor in the Marvel movie franchise – publicly disclosed his genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease and subsequent plans to take a break from acting.
Genetic Testing — One Component of Identifying Alzheimer’s Risk
Hemsworth is the star of the new Disney+ documentary series Limitless. As part of the series, the actor underwent a battery of genetic tests. The results confirmed what Hemsworth describes as “his biggest fear”, showing that he has two copies of the ApoE4 gene, the strongest risk factor gene for Alzheimer’s disease. People with two copies of ApoE4 are 8- to 12-times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. ApoE4 is also associated with getting the disease at an earlier age.
The actor chose to make his results public to improve awareness and understanding of the preventative steps we can all take against Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Hemsworth now plans to focus on just that, stating that he will take time off to be with his family.
Genetic testing is only one component of identifying Alzheimer’s risk, and having two copies of ApoE4 is by no means a guarantee that a person will develop the disease, but Hemsworth’s story raises an important question around prevention. Namely, what does this young generation of people under 40 understand and think about their own brain health?
Stark Knowledge Gap around Brain Health in Young Adults
We know that early detection and management of risk factors is the best way to prevent the brain diseases that cause clinical dementia, yet there is a stark knowledge gap around brain health in young adults before mid-life, i.e., between the ages of 18 and 39 years. Young adults account for over 30% of the world’s population. As a distinct age cohort, they have unique advantages; for example, they are highly tech-literate and so have potential to become active agents in monitoring their own brain health. Young adults also face disadvantages, having lived through a global recession and now the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to impact mental health, as well as education and employment opportunities.
Next Generation Brain Health Study
Instead of focusing solely on reducing risk and fears around developing a brain disease in later life, we must shift the narrative towards promoting brain health for everyone, making optimal brain health a goal to aspire to. To this end, we are collaborating with colleagues in the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) and partners in the UK and North America to lead a new research programme investigating brain health in young adults: the Next Generation (NextGen) Brain Health Study.
Ongoing work for the NextGen study includes focus groups with young people aged 18-39 years who are living in Europe and North America, with plans to extend these groups to Latin America and Africa. This research explores young peoples’ awareness and understanding of brain health and associated risk and protective factors. Findings will inform an international survey for young adults, launching in 2023.
For further reading on the importance of young adult brain health, see our recent Editorial, co-authored with Brian Lawlor, GBHI and Sarah Gregory, University of Edinburgh, published in The BMJ: Brain Health in Young Adults.