Brain health program reduces stress, bolsters health for law enforcement officers

Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker’s initial skepticism for Dr. Joel Robertson’s brain health program soon transitioned to wholehearted support when colleagues confirmed the many benefits it yielded in their professional and personal lives.
Steve Kempker
“When I first heard of it, and Doc knows I said this, I thought, ‘What kind of voodoo science is this?’” Kempker recalls. “We first heard about this through (now-retired) Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma. I was undersheriff at the time. We talked with a few of the guys at Kent County, and I started to hear about the good stuff coming out of it four or five years ago.”

Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department voluntarily offered the brain health program to its employees in January 2017. Since then, Kempker says, he’s heard of officers who have lost weight, whose blood pressures are lower, who eat healthier, sleep better at night (including himself), find more satisfaction with their jobs and with their families, and report far less stress. Another major plus is the program reduces the chance of early-onset dementia.

Holland police and fire

Hearing of such benefits was enough of a draw for Matt Messer, Chief of Holland Public Safety Services, which includes the city’s police and fire departments. 
Matt Messer
“It’s confirmed we do certain things here very well, but there’s also room for improvement,” Messer says. “They’ve made several suggestions, all the way from individual improvement for myself personally to how to conduct meetings, how to send out agendas, and how to involve people with input when it comes to making decisions.”

The proof of the program’s value is in the county’s health premiums, adds Ottawa County Administrator Al Vandeberg.

“We had a zero percent increase in health (insurance) premiums for the last two years, and 1.04% the year before that. So that would almost be a story in itself, with health insurance benefits,” Vanderberg says.

Law enforcement inherently requires employees to grapple with stress, which can influence their physical and emotional health, job performance, and family life. Robertson’s brain chemistry optimization program is a game-changer.

The program does not follow a one-size-fits-all method. It takes into account that the “stressors” for road patrol officers are different than they are for command, corrections, and detectives. Thanks to individualized assessments, a health program is tailored for each employee.

Allegan County signs up

That was a strong selling point for Allegan County Undersheriff Mike Larsen, who says his department is in the early stages of the program.
Mike Larsen
“It is very occupation-specific,” Larsen says. “As a command officer, it is more helpful to me in administration, but detectives and corrections have their own stressors and challenges. It gives them more tools, and they get more career enjoyment.”

Amping up career satisfaction translates to better job performance and happier home life, agrees Kempker. He likens officers’ job-related stress to tossing rocks into a backpack, a little at a time through the years, until something gives after responding to numerous fatal accidents, homicides, abuse, and the like.

“After a while, your backpack is only going to be able to hold so many rocks, and the straps are going to break,” Kempker says.

Specific to the individual

Each employee is given an assessment to fill out, which is run through a software program Robertson developed. A report then measures the level of five brain chemicals and, based on those results, recommends dietary and lifestyle changes.

And make no mistake, emphasizes Vanderberg, it is specific for each Individual.

“Diet is geared for individuals,” he says. “For example, the HR director was told not to have pink fish, and mine said I should have pink fish every week. And exercise ... one employee exercising seven days a week was raising their dopamine level too high. But for me, I need to exercise four days a week hard and three days at a low level. And for other people, it was OK to exercise every day.”
Al Vanderberg
This year, Vanderberg will start to expand Robertson’s brain health program by offering it to the rest of the county’s 950 full- and part-time employees.

Sharing brain health

Robertson is the founder and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Robertson Health, a network of for-profit and nonprofit health and wellness companies. Robertson Wellness’ mission includes the use of artificial intelligence in the areas of health, wellness, and performance through health information technology. 

In addition to law enforcement agencies, Robertson has consulted with professional athletic programs and corporations throughout the world, including the Detroit Red Wings, General Motors Inc., Fuji Photo Films, Dow Corning, United Airlines, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Robertson holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy from Ferris State University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Michigan. He completed postgraduate studies in chemical dependency and family system therapies at Harvard University. He specializes in neuropharmacology with concentrations in psychiatric and cardiovascular pharmacology.

‘Trapped stress’

What these credentials mean for law enforcement personnel is an opportunity to grasp a healthier life and avoid a faster onset of dementia due to “trapped stress” that isn’t properly dealt with, Robertson says.
Joel Robertson
“With 20 years of trapped stress, you are likely to statistically develop dementia 19 years earlier than people who experience 20 years of regular stress,” Robertson says.

“We see that with our profiles with these guys. The beauty of it is right now, after a year, we’ve reduced that by 19%. And in medicine, that’s huge,” he says. “We’ve had super success, which decreases cardiac disease, early dementia, all those things that have been significant in law enforcement.”

No medication

Robertson advocates for behavior change without using pharmaceutical drugs. “I see brain chemistry has a major effect on behavior,” he says. “Medication doesn’t change behavior, it changes brain chemistry. When a change in brain chemistry occurs, there’s a change in behavior. The secret to changing behavior, which can come from fear or stress, lies with what to do with the brain — our hard drive.

“So if I’m stressed out and I drink, most people focus on the drinking. But the problem was that the brain was stressed. The drinking is self-medication. Not that we shouldn’t focus on drinking, I’m not saying that. What we have to focus on is the basic cause of what’s going on. What we did is create an assessment (software) because the National Institutes of Health says the things that cause our diseases and behaviors are our genetics, our childhood development, our environment, and our lifestyle.

“Ottawa County is one of the most progressive health-oriented counties anywhere,” Robertson says. “Take control of your brain or it will take control of you. Complacency will cause you to get less out of life.”