What helps your heart can help your brain, too. Following a heart-healthy lifestyle can lower your chances of having a stroke, and it can also make a big difference in your mental abilities as you age.
In fact, getting plenty of physical activity, eating a healthy diet and other behaviors that strengthen your heart can have a profound effect on the way you think, how you act and what you remember.
“Most people don’t understand the connection between heart health and brain health, and as doctors we’re learning more every day,” said Ralph Sacco, M.D., chief of neurology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and past president of the American Heart Association. “New studies have shown that the risk factors that can lead to heart disease and stroke, such as physical inactivity and obesity, also contribute to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and cognitive dysfunction.”
Here’s what happens: Those unhealthy behaviors can lead to narrowing of the blood vessels. That reduces blood flow to the brain, and leads to hardening of the arteries of the heart and the brain.
When your brain doesn’t get the blood flow it needs, it can begin to malfunction. As a result, Sacco said, you could experience problems thinking, trouble with memory, difficulty finding your way from place to place and deterioration in cognitive function. If blood flow to the brain is abruptly blocked, you could even have a stroke.
“People often associate memory loss with Alzheimer’s disease, and they think it can’t be prevented or treated,” said Sacco, the first neurologist to serve as president of the American Heart Association. “But controlling your risk factors for heart disease can make a difference in slowing its progression.”
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. Stroke ranks fifth, and it is also a leading cause of severe, long-term disability.
“Most of the time, like heart disease, it takes years of uncontrolled, unhealthy habits to wreak havoc on your brain, so it’s important to think about healthy habits as early as childhood and maintain them through adulthood and middle age,” Sacco said. “Many of these unhealthy behaviors translate to high blood pressure, diabetes and elevated cholesterol by the time you’re in your 50s.”
The High Blood Pressure Connection
“The one factor that is the strongest predictor of brain health is high blood pressure,” Sacco said. “It’s the most significant risk factor for stroke. It also has the most evidence suggesting that it leads to blockages of small arteries and impaired brain health.”
Many people don’t know they have high blood pressure because it has no visible symptoms, which is why it’s dubbed “the silent killer.” It can be controlled with lifestyle changes and high blood pressure medication, so visiting your healthcare professional to check your blood pressure is very important. Learn about high blood pressure and what you can do to control it.
Getting on the Right Path
It’s also important to discuss any cognitive problems you’re having with your healthcare provider.
“If you’re having trouble with memory or thinking, tell your doctor — and then tell your doctor again,” Sacco said. “We all have a little trouble when we age, like forgetting where we put our keys, but if your thinking problems seem more than usual your doctor may be able to find out if there’s really something wrong. You may need to be evaluated by a neurologist, or someone who specializes in cognitive issues.”
You might undergo testing to test how well your memory is working. You might also need to see a neuropsychologist, who can use brain teasers, puzzles and other tests to assess your cognitive function and compare it to other people your age.
The next step: Strive for a healthy lifestyle. This includes getting plenty of physical activity and following a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein and fish. Maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking, and managing your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol are all critical.
Although healthy behaviors should ideally start early, it’s never too late. You can get a snapshot of your heart health and get help making improvements with My Life Check.
Fighting Heart Disease and Stroke
Researchers with the American Heart Association have long understood the connections between heart disease and stroke. In 1997, the organization created the American Stroke Association division to focus entirely on stroke. To learn more, volunteer or donate, visit strokeassociation.org or heart.org.