How Do Researchers Talk About Brain Health?

Inconsistencies in Brain Health Research Threaten Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

How Do Researchers Talk About Brain Health?

Researchers studying cognitive aging and brain health come from a wide variety of disciplines and academic perspectives.

These diverse efforts often complement one another, because linking fields of research is critical to scientific progress. Yet, because researchers often use language that is specialized to their own discipline, translation of even commonly used terms can be complicated, especially when it is carried out using differing research techniques or in diverse scientific contexts.

As a researcher associated with the Illinois PRC, I led a team of over a dozen members of the Healthy Brain Research Network to identify the language that investigators use to describe cognitive aging and brain health in research on older adults. We were interested in whether the language between researchers was consistent, as this is important to promoting collaboration and translating research into clinical practice. We reviewed studies conducted over the past ten years for terms related to cognitive aging and brain health, specifically focusing on how these terms were defined and measured.

We discovered that most of the research on cognitive aging and health is published in the areas of geriatrics, neurology, psychiatry, and psychology, but that important fields, such as nursing and social work, were not as progressive with research in this area. We also found that there was no consistency in how terms related to cognitive aging and brain health were used within and across these disciplines.

Looking more closely at the terms “cognitive impairment” and “mild cognitive impairment,” we determined that formal definitions are typically not included in research reports, despite fairly broad interpretation and use of these terms. There also was wide variation in the ways in which these conditions are being measured by researchers, both in the tools that are used and in the levels that determine impairment. We also found that most research to date centers on cognitive decline; we recommended that more attention should be given to ways in which cognitive health might be improved in aging adults.

Our work highlights an important vulnerability in research communication, one that can potentially inhibit collaboration and lead to misunderstandings. Governmental research funding programs, professional associations, and publishers can do more to provide guidance so that there is greater consistency in research language and reporting. This consistency will help practitioners diagnose and treat those experiencing cognitive issues and legitimize the experiences of individuals in the early stages of cognitive change. It will also help our national and local leaders to develop more consistent and informed policy regarding cognitive aging and brain health.

About the Banner Image. Photo captured by Jaddy Liu, utilized by the Illinois PRC via Unsplash.




Kelly Quinn, PhD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications.                                                            Follow her on Twitter @_kquinn_.