WHO releases first position paper on optimizing brain health

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently released its first position paper on optimizing brain health across the life course.

Background Information:

Brain health: The state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, socio-emotional, behavioural and motor domains, allowing a person to realize their full potential over the life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders.

Brain health extends beyond concepts of disease (or their absence) and focuses on brain structure and brain functioning across several domains.

The WHO views brain health and mental health as two distinct but closely related concepts.

Mental health: WHO defines mental health as a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Brain health is an important determinant of mental health across the life course. Many of the risk and protective factors that impact mental health (e.g. social adversities, air pollution, physical activity) are likely mediated through changes in brain structure and/or function.

Optimizing brain health preserves and improves brain structure and function, reduces the risk of developing CNS disorders, and promotes overall health. It improves mental and physical health and also creates positive social and economic impacts, all of which contribute to greater well-being and help advance society.

Key Messages:

The brain and central nervous system (CNS) are widely recognized as the command centre of the human body, controlling both conscious and unconscious body functions and thereby influencing every aspect of life.

In 2017, 43% of children under the age of 5 years in low- and middle-income countries (nearly 250 million children) were at risk of not reaching their developmental potential due to extreme poverty and stunting.

The financial losses alone for this missed developmental potential projected to be around 26% lower annual earnings in adulthood.

Globally, neurological disorders are the second leading cause of death, responsible for 9 million deaths per year.

Nearly one in three people globally will develop a neurological disorder at some point in their lifetime.

There is a 70-fold difference in the availability of neurologically-trained workforce between high-income countries and low-income countries.

Although more than 70% of people with neurological disorders live in low-and middle-income countries, access to services in low-income countries is grossly insufficient:

  • Only 1 in 4 people with epilepsy receive treatment
  • Only 1 in 10 people living with dementia in low-income countries receive a diagnosis
  • Only 18% of low-and middle-income countries have operational stroke units
  • Neurological workforce is 0.1 per 100 thousand population in low-income countries

Determinants of Brain health include

  • Physical health
  • Healthy environments
  • Safety and security
  • Learning and social connection
  • Access to quality services
Determinants of Brain Health

Environmental threats to brain health include

  • Air pollution- 99% of the world population breathes polluted air
  • Heavy metals- Over 200 million people are exposed to arsenic in their ground water
  • Certain pesticides
  • Industrial solvents
  • Other toxic chemicals- Over 200 chemicals are known to be neurotoxic

Framework for brain health optimization

This includes

  • Addressing brain health determinants at individual and societal level leading to
  • Optimized brain structure and function across the life course resulting in
  • Enhanced well-being

Useful Links:

Link to the related WHO news release:


Link to the WHO position paper:



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