What's Good For The Heart Is Good For The Brain
Are you looking to optimize brain function? Or perhaps maintain intellectual capabilities as you age? You might want to start by focusing on your heart health.
Not only are the risk factors for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease the same as those for cardiovascular disease, but recently, research has demonstrated a direct link between cardiovascular health and cognition. Additionally, actions that protect your heart can help to decrease the incidence of dementia and other related cognitive functions.1
In a 2016 study, epidemiologists looked at the impact that a heart-healthy lifestyle has on memory and mental acuity over six years in 60-70-year old individuals. This included – maintaining healthy blood pressure and body weight, good nutrition, not smoking, regular exercise and maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels. The results of the study were significant. In every different demographic studied, those who had better cardiovascular health, had higher scores on mental exams than those who scored lower on the health section. Even more impressive, several years later, these benefits continued.2
In January 2020, the Global Council on Brain Health released a report which focused on the connection between heart health and brain health. In the report they mention that in general, keeping a healthy heart and blood vessels reduces the risk for dementia and cognitive decline.1 They state that better control of blood pressure and cholesterol reduce risk of cognitive impairment while irregular heartbeats, obesity and sedentary lifestyle increase the risk for both dementia and cognitive decline.1 Large groups of people were studied over many decades, and the writers found that the occurrence of dementia decreases with cardiovascular health enhancements.
What is so similar between brain and heart health that there is such a tightly bound relationship between the two of them?
We don’t know the exact mechanism for the benefits of cardiovascular health on the brain, but the most likely and researched hypothesis is based on the blood flow to the brain. The main issue in any cardiovascular disease is that damage to the arteries prevents blood flow and oxygen delivery throughout the body. This reduced or blocked flow of blood can lead to major cardiovascular events like heart attacks or strokes. In order for your brain to function optimally and to clear away certain proteins that build up in Alzheimer’s disease, we need proper blood flow. Without adequate blood flow to the brain these proteins can start to accumulate and become tangled which increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 2
Ultimately, the brain requires constant and uninterrupted blood flow. If there are issues in blood flow, either due to heart or vascular problems, the function of the brain will be impacted. An example of this is seen in patients who suffer from left sided heart failure and have a decreased ability to pump out high volumes of blood. Those with heart failure have significantly lower cognitive function scores when compared to those with proper heart function.3 Due to the damage of the heart, there is less blood pumped to the brain. This leads to under perfusion, decreasing the oxygen available for the brain cells to use.
Compounded on the need to pump adequate amounts of blood to the brain, the perfusion within the brain itself is also important. The brain is one the of the most vascular organs in the body and the small blood vessels that supply the brain cells are also significant contributing factors to a healthy brain. When these small vessels are damaged, there is decreased oxygen as well as glucose brought to your brain cells, impairing their function. 4
So, what can you do to get these benefits?
- Exercise- getting at least 150 minutes of physical activity in per week is one of the best things you can do for both brain and heart health. Those who exercise have decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment and more serious problems like Alzheimer’s disease.5
- Healthy, Mediterranean-style diet. Eating a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, omega 3 fatty acids and seafood while low in processed meats and refined carbohydrates is associated with better cognitive performance.6
- Keep a healthy blood pressure. In the 2020 report on the link between cardiovascular and brain health, adults who maintained readings in a healthy range were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, compared to those with higher number.1
- Manage your cholesterol. Regularly have your cholesterol and blood lipids checked and reduce levels if it is too high.
- Stop smoking and decrease alcohol use. The use of cigarettes is strongly linked to vascular issues like stroke in the brain. Furthermore, several chemicals in cigarettes can damage the brain cells directly. 8
The heart-brain connection is great news for anyone who is looking to maintain their brain health or protect against cognitive decline with aging. By working on improving and optimizing cardiovascular health, you automatically are improving brain function, as well as several other organs.
- Steyaert J, Deckers K, Smits C, Fox C, Thyrian R, Jeon YH, Vernooij-Dassen M, Köhler S, Interdem taskforce on prevention of dementia. Putting primary prevention of dementia on everybody’s agenda. Aging & Mental Health. 2020 Jun 26:1-5.
- Gardener H, Wright CB, Dong C, Cheung K, DeRosa J, Nannery M, Stern Y, Elkind MS, Sacco RL. Ideal cardiovascular health and cognitive aging in the Northern Manhattan Study. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2016 Mar 16;5(3):e002731.
- Zuccalà G, Cattel C, Manes-Gravina E, Di Niro MG, Cocchi A, Bernabei R. Left ventricular dysfunction: a clue to cognitive impairment in older patients with heart failure. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 1997 Oct 1;63(4):509-12.
- De la Torre JC. Impaired brain microcirculation may trigger Alzheimer's disease. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 1994 Sep 1;18(3):397-401.
- Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, Smee DJ, Rattray B. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018 Feb 1;52(3):154-60.
- Petersson SD, Philippou E. Mediterranean diet, cognitive function, and dementia: a systematic review of the evidence. Advances in Nutrition. 2016 Sep;7(5):889-904.
- Alzheimer’s Society. United against dementia. Retrieved: July 9, 2020.