You’ve heard people talk about “leading with the head” or “leading with the heart.” Some of us tend to think things through, while others just go with what we’re feeling. We all navigate life differently.
But when it comes to our physical health, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the mind and the heart depend on one another, and that the more we take care of our heart, the actual physical organ, the stronger our minds will be as we age.
Science is telling us that keeping our hearts healthy will also protect our minds. There is evidence that many of the factors that contribute to physical illness also contribute to mental decline.
And when you think about it, it makes sense.
Vascular health: important for heart and brain
“There is increasing evidence connecting cardiovascular risk factors with brain health,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Dr. Seth Martin, associate director of the Lipid Clinic at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease.
After all, a compromised vascular system contributes to health issues like obesity and high blood pressure, which lead to heart disease. But vascular health is also intimately linked to dementia risk.
Research funded by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that factors which increase the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes are also associated with greater risk of developing dementia in midlife.
Researchers looked at almost 16,000 people ages 44 to 66 who had taken part in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study between April 2015 and August 2016. All had been tested for a gene variant called APOE4 that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The ARIC study began in the 1980s. Over a 25-year period, as expected, those with the APOE4 gene were twice as likely to develop dementia.
But having diabetes in middle age was almost as great a risk factor for dementia as having the APOE4 gene. So preventing diabetes could be as powerful as changing heredity (if we could) in terms of preventing dementia.
More research is accumulating proving that staying heart-healthy can also preserve your cognitive health well into your later years.
A recent study from the University of Bordeaux in France rated 6,626 people over age 65 on seven indicators of cardiovascular health:
- Physical activity
- Body mass index
- Blood pressure
During an eight-year follow up period, dementia risk fell by 10 percent for every measure people fulfilled successfully (ex., not smoking). Those who had all seven areas under control reduced their dementia risk by 70 percent.
Making changes now is important
The ARIC study cited above highlights the particular importance of guarding our heart health during middle age.
“Our results contribute to a growing body of evidence linking midlife vascular health to dementia,” said Rebecca Gottesman of Johns Hopkins. “These are modifiable risk factors. Our hope is that by addressing these types of factors early, people can reduce the chances that they will suffer from dementia later in life.”
So, how do we protect our hearts now so that our minds stay sharp as we age?
The CDC has five big recommendations for us:
1. Control your blood pressure. Science now knows that hypertension is associated with dementia, especially in women. Get your blood pressure checked regularly, and if it is high, work with your doctor to find ways to control it. Look to the many natural ways to keep blood pressure in check.
2. Eat healthy foods and limit alcohol. A Mediterranean-style diet consisting of healthy fats, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables is a proven brain-saver.
Research shows that moderate drinking is better than either abstinence or drinking too much when it comes to preventing dementia.
3. Get diabetes and pre-diabetes under control. Diabetes causes high blood sugar, which damages blood vessels and nerves, sending your risk for both heart disease and dementia through the roof.
4. Don’t smoke. Smoking damages blood vessels and makes blood more likely to clot, which causes heart disease and stroke. Here are seven natural ways to quit.
5. Stay active. A lot of these recommendations are interrelated, of course. Lack of physical activity leads to obesity, which leads to diabetes. A sedentary lifestyle is also a death sentence for your heart.
If you can get your heart pumping for at least 2-3 hours per week, you’ll be well on your way to keeping both heart and mind healthy for years to come.
Editor’s note: One of the biggest dangers to anyone’s brain is a drug that 38 million Americans take every single day. It robs the brain of an essential nutrient required for optimal brain health. And it steals memories. Are you taking it? Click here to find out!
- Association of Cardiovascular Health Level in Older Age With Cognitive Decline and Incident Dementia — JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association
- Associations Between Midlife Vascular Risk Factors and 25-Year Incident Dementia in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Cohort — JAMA Neurology
- The Healthier Your Heart, the Healthier Your Brain May Be — The New York Times