What’s good for your heart is good for your brain | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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February 20, 2019

What’s good for your heart is good for your brain

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin

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With all the talk of hearts this month, let’s take a look at how heart health affects your brain. It turns out what’s good for your heart really is good for your brain. Since the heart pumps blood through every vessel in your body, it makes sense. There is less oxygen and fewer nutrients to feed your brain if your heart is not functioning at full capacity.

“High blood pressure, artery disease and heart failure are strong risk factors for memory and thinking problems,” explains Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD, Research Director, for the Rush Heart Center for Women and Associate Professor at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. “These conditions don’t just affect the heart. They can reduce blood flow and increase inflammation in the brain, leading to slower thinking, difficulty making decisions, and unbalanced walking.”

The good news is that this inflammation can be prevented or reduced through a healthy lifestyle and appropriate medical treatment. The result might even be an improvement in cognitive skills for people with heart disease.

Dr. Aggarwal recommends four steps to improving your heart and brain health. “Tackle these four pillars one at a time and build on them,” she says. “It’s a lot easier than taking them all on at once.”

  • Reduce your stress – Long-term stress can not only increase the level of cortisol, it also keeps these levels high which is bad for the brain. Stress can lead to many problems such as disrupting regular sleep patterns, promoting weight gain, and decreasing your ability to focus and think clearly. Reducing stress improves the brain’s ability to process information and also stabilizes heart function.
  • Exercise – We know that the brain shrinks as we age. Now, research suggests that this shrinkage can be increased if there is less blood flow to the brain.  Exercise can slow this process and actually increase brain volume. If you don’t have a current exercise plan, start with walking. Just 150 minutes of walking (at any pace) or another aerobic exercise each week with some mild weight lifting will make a difference.
  • Nutrition – The more we exercise and move, the better we eat. This keeps our digestive system in good working order. Add more brain healthy foods to your diet including fruits, vegetables, lean protein and legumes. Green leafy vegetables such as kale, blueberries, walnuts and almonds are all good choices for better brain health.
  • Social activity – Research shows that regular social interactions stimulate your brain in a way that being alone cannot. Social isolation and loneliness are serious conditions that can affect your overall heart and brain health. So make sure to plan more time in positive relationships with family and friends. Read more about this in our article about mental well-being. 

“By following these four steps and working with your doctor, you can reduce your risk for heart disease and at the same time increase your brain health,” says Dr. Aggarwal. “And you might just be rewarded with the extra benefits of better sleep, less pain, fewer stomach problems and a better sense of well-being.”

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