As the U.S. population ages, it’s becoming more and more important to find ways to help preserve brain health. Out of Americans 65 years and older, an estimated one in five has mild cognitive impairment, and one in seven has dementia. What’s even more worrying is that the number of Americans with dementia is expected to triple by 2050.
Scientists have known for a while that brain health and heart health are connected. We’ve written before about how taking good care of your heart can keep your brain healthy and help defend against age-related cognitive decline.
The American Heart Association (AHA) is re-emphasizing the importance of this link, as well as the important role played by primary care clinics in helping patients to preserve their brain health. To that end, the AHA is recommending primary care doctors address the following factors….
7 simple steps for heart (and brain) health
The AHA already has what they call Life’s Simple 7, a protocol that focuses on seven lifestyle targets for best cardiovascular health. In an article in the journal Stroke, the AHA noted that the Simple 7 also can be linked with better brain health. Here are a few ways in which addressing Life’s Simple 7 can help both your heart and brain….
Manage your blood pressure. Maintaining healthy blood pressure will not only help your heart health, it can also decrease your risk of dementia. The Stroke article cited a review and analysis of seven studies that found a systolic blood pressure of over 160 mm Hg was connected with a 25% increase in Alzheimer’s disease risk, and a systolic of over 140 mm Hg was associated with an 18% increased risk. And two large heart studies found that hypertension during the ages of 40 to 65 to raise risk of dementia in later life.
Don’t smoke. Smoking hurts heart health in a number of ways. It can cause permanent damage to your heart and blood vessels, change your blood chemistry and cause plaque to build up in the arteries, leading to atherosclerosis and increased risk of heart attack.
Although it’s not clear exactly what mechanism links smoking to cognitive decline, researchers suspect oxidative stress may have something to do with it. Oxidative stress can lead to vascular, inflammatory and neurodegenerative processes. And it’s plain that quitting smoking can help a lot; one meta-analysis cited by the Stroke article notes that while smokers had an increased risk of dementia, quitting smoking lowered that risk to almost the same level as that of those who have never smoked.
Reduce your blood sugar to avoid diabetes. Over the long term, diabetes can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. And it’s well-known that diabetes is linked with increased risk for dementia, although its connection with milder cognitive impairment needs to be investigated more. A study review cited by the Stroke article found that those with diabetes have greater rates of decline in cognitive function and a 50% higher risk of cognitive decline when compared with those without diabetes. And in a large-scale study, participants with diabetes in midlife had a 19% higher cognitive decline over 20 years compared with people without diabetes.
The remaining four steps in Life’s Simple 7 are keeping healthy cholesterol levels, increasing physical activity, eating a healthy diet and losing weight. All of these are important for maintaining a strong heart and good blood flow, both of which help protect brain health.
6 more to watch to avoid cognitive impairment
The AHA defines brain health through the lens of cognition, that spectrum of intellectual activities including memory, thinking, reasoning, communication and problem-solving. Cognition enables people to go about their everyday lives in the world successfully, and its loss can lead to helplessness and dependency. Also, once cognition is lost, it’s very difficult to regain given the limitations of current treatment options.
In addition to Life’s Simple 7, the AHA is suggesting primary care doctors keep an eye on the following six risk factors to maintain ideal cognitive health:
- Social isolation
- Excessive drinking of alcohol
- Sleep disorders
- Less education
- Hearing loss
“Scientists are learning more about how to prevent cognitive decline before changes to the brain have begun,” says Dr. Ronald Lazar, chair of the writing group that released the scientific statement published in Stroke. “We have compiled the latest research and found Life’s Simple 7 plus other factors like sleep, mental health and education are a more comprehensive lifestyle strategy that optimizes brain health in addition to cardiovascular health.”
“Primary care is the right home for practice-based efforts to prevent or postpone cognitive decline,” he adds. “Primary care professionals are most likely to identify and monitor risk factors early and throughout the lifespan. The evidence in this statement demonstrates that early attention to these factors improves later life outcomes.”
Putting these into practice
While it’s always good to check in at least once a year with your primary care doctor, you can monitor a lot of these factors and take steps to correct them on your own. But it’s probably wise not to try not to overwhelm yourself by doing them all at once.
Start with something simple, like eating at least one healthy meal a day or taking a 20-minute walk during your lunch break. Then once that’s become a habit, you can try adding another step, like cutting back on your smoking if you’re a smoker, or drinking if you fear you might be overdoing it on the evening cocktails.
Keep taking it one step at a time, and before you know it you will have built a daily routine that’s great for both your heart and your brain.
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13 things primary care clinics can check to help preserve brain health — American Heart Association
How Smoking Affects Heart Health — U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Diabetes and Your Heart — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention