Your brain will benefit from the heart-healthy steps you take to eat better, exercise more, and stress less.
Philosophers have long pondered the mysteries of heart and mind. Now scientists are working to unravel the flesh-and-blood linkage between the cardiovascular system and the brain. What they are finding is that the recipe for a strong heart is fundamentally the same as that for a sharp mind.
Make the link
“Everything we think of as being unhealthy for your blood vessels and heart has also been linked to dementia,” says Dr. Steven Greenberg, professor of neurology at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. The familiar heart disease and stroke culprits—high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stiff arteries—can also lead to tiny injuries to the brain’s white matter that are associated with lowered thinking ability. Not so coincidentally, these same risk factors are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss. “All the things you can do to keep your blood vessels and heart healthy would also cut down on dementia risk—possibly by a lot,” says Dr. Greenberg. “Since we don’t yet have a treatment to prevent Alzheimer’s, it is appealing to have actions we can take right now.”
Healthy lifestyle choices that prevent heart disease may also help keep your mind sharp.
If you’re trying to safeguard your brain power, a good place to start is to adopt a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet of lean protein (such as fish), fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil. These foods supply the body with substances that appear to prevent injury to the tiny arteries and protect against the early stages of mental decline. Unsalted nuts also do double duty when it comes to brain health. These tasty snacks may help clear fatty deposits from the arteries and keep blood pressure in check. They may also raise the level of a brain chemical that boosts brain signaling and improves memory circuits.
Exercise your brain
Aerobic activity, the kind of exercise that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat, appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals that affect the health of brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels in the brain.
“The great irony about sleep is that we spend a third of our time doing it but do not really understand why we need to,” says Dr. Greenberg. Some researchers think that restful sleep may be the brain’s opportunity to clear out toxic beta-amyloid waste products that are associated with memory loss. Poor sleep quality has been linked with high blood pressure, cholesterol-clogged arteries, heart failure, heart attack and stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that causes a person to briefly stop breathing repeatedly during the night, is closely tied to stroke risk.
Close the stress door
In stressful situations, your body releases a flood of chemicals such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). Chronic stress can interfere with your mood, sleep, and appetite. It may also trigger inflammation, a known instigator of heart disease. Your brain is the sensor for many forms of stress, which trigger the outpouring of these brain chemicals. This is especially true when it comes to stressors such as depression and social isolation, both of which are linked to mental decline.
In addition to waves of stress hormones surging through the body, the heart and brain are linked through a series of direct nerve pathways. In cases of sudden extreme stress, a storm of abnormal brain signaling can provoke irregular heartbeats or, in rare cases, an immediate heart attack.
Take your medicines
Statin drugs, a staple in the management of high cholesterol, have gotten some bad publicity as a potential cause of memory and thinking problems. Much of the concern seems to be unfounded. There is a lot to be gained by taking medicines that prevent stroke and heart attack—both of which are clearly bad for the brain. “If you have strong reasons to be on these drugs in the first place, worries about cognitive impairment should not make you stop. In fact, it is probably a reason why you should continue,” says Dr. Greenberg.