Maximize Your Heart-Brain Connection

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Seven Ways to Keep Your Heart Strong, Mind Sharp

We can’t stop ourselves from getting older but we can reduce the risk of both heart and brain problemsheart brain image 400 600, such as strokes and memory issues, by making simple lifestyle changes.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that seven factors contributing to a healthy heart might also promote a healthy brain. These factors, also known as “Life’s Simple 7,” include:

  • Managing blood pressure
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Reducing blood sugar
  • Getting physical activity
  • Eating healthier
  • Losing weight
  • Quitting smoking

To understand the connection between these seven heart risk factors and brain health, the researchers studied 1,033 adults over age 40 and measured their heart health based on these factors. They then tested how well participants’ brains were working in the areas of memory recall, reaction time, and organizational skills. Researchers performed the same tests six years later.

The study showed that those who maintained more of the seven heart health factors showed less declines in their brain’s performance, particularly in the area of reaction time.

This study confirms what’s already been known about the connection between a healthy heart and brain. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” John Bertelson, MD, a Ascension Seton Brain and Spine Institute expert said.

Heart and Brain Connections

How does a healthy heart help keep your brain sharp? Blood travels to and from the heart through vessels such as arteries and veins. Any damage to the blood vessels and the energy it provides to the brain could cause issues with how well the brain works.

Part of this positive effect also could be due to the fact that these seven factors help reduce the risk of strokes. “If you can avoid a stroke, you can avoid a major and permanent form of brain damage,” Bertelson said. “High blood pressure, which is a risk factor for strokes, thickens the walls of the brain’s blood vessels. This can affect the blood flow to the brain.”

The brain’s frontal lobe controls specific functions such as processing speed and reaction time. “This is the biggest part of the brain, so it’ll be hit harder by issues related to high blood pressure or stroke,” said Dr. Bertelson.

Know Your Personal Risk Factors

So what can you do to check how well your heart and brain are working?

  • If you are in good general health, check your blood pressure a few times a year.
  • If you have gained weight and are not exercising, check your blood pressure more often.
  • Check your blood sugar and cholesterol at least once a year.

Of course, talk to your health care provider about any concerns you have.

Tips for a Healthier Heart and Brain

The good news is making small changes can benefit your overall heart and brain health. “As far as preventing declines in memory or thinking, it’s never too late to start working on improving these seven heart health factors,” Bertelson said.

Making changes can also help reverse some of these health issues. “We’ve seen patients who have lost weight and were able to dial down medications for blood pressure and diabetes,” George Rodgers, MD, a Ascension Seton Heart Institute expert said.

Here are some simple steps you can take to improve your heart and brain health:

  • If your BMI (body mass index) is over the normal range (18-25), try to lose weight.
  • Get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five times per week.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins such as fish or chicken.
  • Aim for at least seven to nine hours of sleep nightly.
  • Get more mental stimulation. Best way? Be more social, which can include going to classes or hanging out with friends and family.
  • Work on relieving stress, which can include meditation or exercise.

All of these tips are important. But if there’s one thing you can do, maintain a healthy body weight throughout your life.

“When you become overweight, it changes your body’s metabolism and this can drive high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” said Dr. Rodgers. “A healthy weight could make an incredible difference in your overall health.”