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East County Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021 1 month ago

Brain Health Initiative founder expects big 2021 in Lakewood Ranch

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Jay Heater: Side of Ranch
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Elon University student Keri McGahren didn't need more work on her schedule, but she was fascinated by the start of the Brain Health Initiative in Lakewood Ranch.

So she decided last year to apply to become the student liaison for the Brain Health Initiative's Scholars Program. After being selected, she figured she would have to do with less sleep.

Only she found herself sleeping more, and better.

"I didn't understand how stress could impact my sleep," McGahren said. "I am under a heavy work load and I was not getting the sleep I needed."

Working alongside Stephanie Peabody, a neuropsychologist and founder of the Brain Health Initiative, McGahren began to learn factors, such as quality sleep, that can influence brain health.

"I was trying to apply what I learned to my own life," she said. "I have prioritized sleep and now I make a very detailed schedule."

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

The tiny microcosm of the Brain Health Initiative's considerable end goal draws attention to an effort that is advancing in our community, even if we still are oblivious to strides being made by Peabody and her team.

McGahren, no doubt, is a smart cookie. You would think she would have learned long ago that quality sleep leads to quality output.

But that makes me think of the Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 and produced such celebrated discoveries as smoking is bad for your heart, and exercise is good for your heart.

While my initial reaction would be "duh," it became apparent as the study collected the Massachusetts community's lifestyle habits over decades, that we as a society failed to weigh the obvious with the attention it deserved. It took a team of researchers to not only tell us that "smoking was bad for our hearts," but, more importantly, why it was bad for our hearts.

Peabody launched The Brain Health Initiative because we as a society have had a lack of focus on prevention (emphasizing treatment rather than prevention); a lack of integration across disciplines (neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists working in silos); and a lack of an understanding of multi-level risk and resiliency factors when it comes to brain health.

"We are influencing people's behavior," Peabody said. "And that's hard to change."

When the effort was launched in 2019, a huge buzz was created. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch donated $600,000 toward the effort and other businesses came forward with funding.

But studies like Framingham take decades to accumulate research so it's hard to maintain that buzz, especially when you have a COVID-19 pandemic, which prevents the new researchers in town from coming face-to-face with so many of us.

Peabody and her team have ambitious goals in 2021, but some of the most important goals has to do with educating the community about the study and convincing people to participate.

Among the goals are:

To launch the Brain Health Champions! Program that is designed to engage and empower the Suncoast region by providing needed brain health knowledge, tools, resources, and training in skill sets to enhance brain health outcomes. The program will offer  professional development programming for fitness and wellness professionals.

To analyze and share results of the Lakewood Ranch Brain Health Pilot Study.

To establish initial BHI Community Brain Health Centers of Excellence.

To continue the Brain Health Boost series.

To grow the Brain Health Scholar program for youths.

To continue the Brain Health Matters Lecture Series.

To expand the Mindful Triathlon as a signature community engagement event.

It should be noted The Brain Health Initiative doesn't have a brick-and-mortar home in Lakewood Ranch that the public can visit because of the pandemic.

Peabody is excited about the coming year because she said despite the pandemic, "interest is through the roof."

After she said the community determines the success of such studies, she was asked what local residents can do to help.

"Just stand up ... participate," she said. "When we send a call to action, respond."

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