Research shows that long-term brain health begins before birth. Prenatal and developmental health factors are incredibly important in helping the brain develop to its fullest potential.

This means brain health is a biological issue, but also a social one. I read recently that a fifth of U.S. children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. A quarter of American kids live with a solo parent — mostly solo mothers, a third of which are living in poverty.

These factors can make it a real challenge to provide enriched education for children, at a time when a focus on early development is very critical. For instance, there may be less opportunity for quality stimulation if parents often delegate care to someone else due to work demands. So, early childhood support becomes a social determinant for brain health, just as it is for a range of health issues.

To give their kids the best health care for their brains, I believe parents need to be positioned to:

  • READ to them every night, and get them to read.
  • Have family time and traditions. There is sufficient research to suggest that (social) connectedness is really, really important to the developing brain. Kids that are alone for long periods of time can disconnect, and be at greater risk later in life.
  • The brain health foundation doesn’t end there. The evidence is piling up, from our own studies and those of colleagues, that body health begets brain health. Adult health behaviors are a beam or pillar. And this is another area where we, again, can hit some big roadblocks on the path to even the most fundamental protective actions. Take high blood pressure as a perfect example: about 1 in 5 U.S. adults with hypertension still don’t know that they have it, whether for lack of access to care, nutritional information, healthy food, or other reasons. The result is that people move into older age and they haven’t maintained their brain health. And then unfortunately, they’re ripe for trouble.

Related UC Davis Research: Experiences at every stage contribute to cognitive abilities in old age

A large study by UC Davis and Canadian researchers found that specific life experiences, such as level of reading attainment and intellectually stimulating activities, are predictive of the rate of latelife cognitive decline.

Published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Neuropsychology, the 2014 study was one of the first comprehensive examinations of the multiple influences of varied demographic factors early in life, and their relationship to cognitive aging.

In this particular study, researchers also found that early life experiences — such as childhood socioeconomic status and literacy — may have greater influence on cognitive impairment risk than such demographic characteristics as race and ethnicity.

“This study is unusual in that it examines how many different life experiences affect cognitive decline in late life… ” said co-author Dan Mungas, professor of neurology and an associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.