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New survey finds Americans care about brain health, but misperceptions abound

Michael J. Fox's return to network television opens door to conversation about brain health

A new online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, sponsored by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (MJFF), reveals that nearly one in five Americans (17 percent) care enough about their brain health that they think about it on a day-to-day basis- but also that myths and misperceptions abound, including a considerable underestimation of the incidence of brain ailments.

Three out of five, or 60 percent, of Americans will develop a brain disease in their lifetimes.[1] In contrast, the survey shows that on average, Americans estimate that only 36 percent of the U.S. population will be at risk of developing a brain disease in their lifetime.

MJFF commissioned the survey, which was fielded by Harris Interactive, as Michael J. Fox returns to network television full-time on September 26, more than 22 years after his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease -- opening the door for a revived conversation about brain health. The Foundation also sought to measure how invested and involved Americans feel in the search for disease cures, which plays an important role in the process and outcomes of medical research.

The vast majority of Americans (95 percent) agree that with new technologies, medical breakthroughs are possible. Yet only 31 percent of Americans say that they can personally help to find cures for chronic illnesses -- a perception MJFF is working to change.

"There are many ways patients and their loved ones can help accelerate the search for cures, such as participating in clinical (human) research studies: providing a one-off blood or saliva sample for genetic testing, or even just completing a survey," said Deborah W. Brooks, co-founder and executive vice chairman of The Michael J. Fox Foundation.

The MJFF survey also revealed that younger Americans feel more empowered to get involved than their older counterparts. Forty-one percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 believe that they can personally help find cures, compared to only 24 percent of those over the age of 55.

Other common misperceptions about the brain:

  • "People only use 10 percent of their brains on a daily basis" -- Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans believe this statement is true. However, neurologists at the Mayo Clinic confirm that almost all of our brains are active at all times.[2]
  • "Mental skills decline with age" -- According to psychologists, certain mental skills actually improve with age, such as one's vocabulary and social wisdom.[3] Still, almost three-quarters (74 percent) of Americans believe this myth to be true.
  • "Men and women are at equal risk of developing brain disease" -- This statement rings true to 71 percent of Americans. In fact, risk varies across diseases. For example, men have a somewhat higher risk of developing Parkinson's disease,[4] while women have a higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis.[5]

Finally, only half of Americans (50 percent) think that loss of smell can be a precursor to all brain diseases. In fact, loss of smell is associated with all major brain diseases, and more than 95 percent of newly diagnosed Parkinson's disease patients have lost some ability to smell.[6] (The Michael J. Fox Foundation is currently leading a major research study recruiting people over age 60 without Parkinson's who have lost some ability to smell.)

Survey Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of The Michael J. Fox Foundation from July 24-26, 2013, among 2,013 adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample, and, therefore, no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact Sarah Schultz at

About The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research
Our challenges don't define us. Our actions do.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation exists for one reason: to find the cure for Parkinson's disease in our lifetime. Parkinson's is the second most common brain disease, estimated to affect one in 100 individuals over age 60. Founded by Michael J. Fox in 2000, the Foundation has quickly grown to become the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's research globally, and was called "the most credible voice on Parkinson's research in the world" by The New York Times. As Michael returns to network television full-time after more than two decades living with Parkinson's disease, the Foundation has launched think/able, a project celebrating the power of optimism and determination to overcome challenges and achieve our biggest goals. Now through the end of October, visit the Foundation's Web site to write Michael a message about how you think/able to reach for your dreams.

[1] Stanley B. Prusiner and George P. Shultz, "Brain Research and the Challenge of Aging," The Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2011.

[2] Robynne Boyd, "Do People Only Use 10 Percent Of Their Brains?," Scientific American, February 7, 2008

[3] Laura Helmuth, "Top Ten Myths About the Brain," Smithsonian Magazine, May 20, 2011

[4] National Institutes of Health, "What Is Parkinson's Disease?" <>

[5] Mayo Clinic, "Multiple sclerosis: Risk factors," December 15, 2012 <>

[6] Hüttenbrink KB, Hummel T, Berg D, Gasser T, Hähner A. "Olfactory Dysfunction: Common in Later Life and Early Warning of Neurodegenerative Disease," Clinic of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, University of Cologne, PubMed (U.S. National Library of Medicine), January 7, 2013

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