Looking after your brain during military service

Brain health impacts many areas of your physical and mental wellness.

NZDF Brain Health

Why is brain health important?

Brain health is a critical piece of your overall health. It underlies your ability to communicate, make decisions, problem-solve and live a productive life. Your brain function is finely tuned to perform optimally, and sometimes even minor injury or illness can have a profound effect on your quality of life.

Injuries or impacts to your brain can be challenging to recover from and will affect many areas of your life, and that of your whanau. Tasks important to being an effective service member, such as decision making, problem solving, impulse control, attention span and reaction time, can be negatively impacted by poor brain health.

Preventing injury to your brain and adopting habits that protect the health of your brain is a valuable approach, especially for any service people.

Lifestyle tips for healthy brains

  • Sleep – Are you getting enough? Experts recommend a minimum of 6-7 hours a night, ideally 7-9 hours a night. Do you need help falling asleep or staying asleep? Read of our sleep resources and modules.
  • Exercise - Regular exercise has been shown to slow age-related brain deterioration and maintain cognitive abilities that typically decrease with age. Exercise also helps lower blood pressure, avoid vascular disease leading to stroke and helps maintain a healthy supply of blood pumping to the brain. For more information refer to the Physical health and fitness section or contact your local PTI for advice.
  • Nutrition – Is your nutrition optimal? Are you getting enough nutrients in your diet to fuel your brain? For more information and advice read our nutrition sections.
  • Stress management – How are you coping with stress? Employ mindfulness, engage more in the activities you love, or seek professional help to achieve optimum stress relief as often as you are able.
  • Medication – Ensure you speak to your GP about any medication you are taking and ask if it impacts on your ability to think clearly. Do you need medication for other conditions that may affect brain health, such as diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension) or heart disease. Contact your local DHC today.

Brain health hazards

Traumatic injuries to the brain can happen to anyone. Unforeseen accidents can result in direct injury. Activities such as contact sports can also potentially directly injure the brain, either through repeated mild blows that you seemingly recover from, or through significant collision and head injuries.

Allied militaries have looked at the common causes of brain injury in service personnel. The most frequent causes are motor vehicle accidents, then falls and contact sports. In the New Zealand general population motor vehicle accidents, falls and assaults are common causes. Twenty percent of Traumatic Brain Injury in NZ is from sport-related activity.

Head injury effects have been shown to be cumulative, i.e. the more head knocks you have in your life time, the higher the risk to your long term health. This is so, even when you think you have recovered well from each injury or insult.

Some military weapons systems have been shown to generate sufficient force that can generate a hazard to your brain in the same way a minor direct blow to the head might. Weapons that concentrate a large amount of force, either through pressure (such as that given off by explosives) or from repeated movement effect (such as recoil from high calibre weapons) can effectively disrupt your brain similar to a minor blow, shake or jolt.

Cumulative effect of brain trauma and other hazards

In the training environment, these effects happen at a low level. A single exposure to a pressure or recoil effect is not likely to effect your brain. When this hazard is repeated too many times in a short time frame, without time to recover, the effect could be hazardous to your brain health.

Research is still ongoing to learn more about these military hazards. Weapons systems in the NZDF such as explosives and high calibre weapons have safety guidelines around them to significantly reduce cumulative exposures and to monitor effects on personnel. This ensures that the NZDF can prevent hazardous exposures before they effect the health of operators.

Some substances can also be toxic to your brain, the most common one being alcohol. Drugs can also damage and contribute to cumulative poor brain health.

Personnel exposed to several different hazards before adequate recovery risk a combined effect of those hazards on brain health. For example, if you have been exposed to weapons systems with significant overpressure effect, you play a contact sport and sustain a mild concussion, and combine this with alcohol within a short period, these factors together don’t support good brain health in the long term. Safety procedures around weapons systems highlight this, but it is up to individuals to consider what work and social activities combined may contribute to health risk.

What symptoms should I be concerned about?

Memory, balance, concentration, headaches, hearing problems, sensitivity to light, fatigue, and irritability are all common symptoms of poor brain health.

However, many of these symptoms however overlap with other more common causes.

Similar symptoms occur in mood disorders (such as depression and anxiety), post viral infection complications (such as long COVID), metabolic problems, obstructive sleep apnoea, and medication side effects etc.

It is critical that if you identify troublesome symptoms that you seek health support to assist in finding the cause and assisting recovery for the issue.

As part of safety guidelines on weapons systems, self monitoring for symptoms is a tool that allows operators to seek health support early if you have concerns about symptoms or your brain health.

What can I do to protect myself?

  • Take your brain health seriously. Try and prevent injuries or insults to your head and brain health. Consider that any brain injury, even a mild concussion, can have an ongoing impact, especially if you get subsequent injuries over your life time.

  • Seek health support after every mild head injury. Pay attention to stand down times for contact sports and get clearance from a health professional if you want to return to play and to full military activity after a head injury.

  • Minimise exposure to toxins that can effect your brain health such as alcohol and drugs.

  • Make sure you are familiar with the hazards of any weapons systems or military activities you are exposed to. Comply with the safety policies and speak up if you have concerns.

  • It is recommended to not expose yourself to brain health risk from several sources at the same time i.e. if you are doing training with a weapons system that has hazards to your brain, take a break from contact sports and alcohol during your training period.

Concerned about symptoms?

Both the NZDF and civilian health professions are very competent at dealing with symptoms and concerns around brain injury or brain health.

While exposure to military brain hazards may be unusual to civilian practitioners, the symptoms and assessments for brain injury are the same as those caused by more common causes, such as sports concussion.

If you have symptoms that are concerning you or your whānau, it is important that you seek a health professional’s opinion. There are a range of conditions that can cause symptoms similar to brain injury and it would be important to identify exactly what is going on with your health so that the right treatment can be initiated.

If you are an instructor or leader for an activity or training serial, make sure you understand the hazards involved and have an effective risk management plan to mitigate those hazards. Encourage your people to speak up with concerns and involve health providers early to assess anyone with concerning symptoms.

More information

Familiarise yourself with applicable single service safety in training policies.

Contact your NZDF health provider at local Defence Health Centre or via 0800 268 437.