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7 Ways to Keep Heart and Brain Strong

Research underscores that the stronger the heart, the better the health of the brain


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The message just keeps getting clearer: The healthier your heart is, the stronger your brainpower is. The compelling evidence comes from research cited in a 2019 report from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an international collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts.

“We hope the good news from the GCBH’s review of the evidence that you can reduce your risk for dementia will really motivate people to choose healthier lifestyles,” says GCBH Executive Director Sarah Lenz Lock, speaking about the report.

Adults age 50 and older may preserve brain health by following recommendations within the report, including staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, managing diabetes, addressing sleep apnea, working to control stress and keeping blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels in healthy ranges.

Simple goals, big results

The recommendations are similar to the American Heart Association’s Life's Simple 7 guidelines, which emphasize the importance of managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, being active, eating well, losing excess weight and stopping smoking.

When researchers from the University of Miami and Columbia University in New York followed more than 1,000 older adults for six years, noting their adherence to the AHA’s seven goals, they found that adults who met more targets did better on tests of the brain’s processing speed, executive function and memory.

Two measures seemed especially important, says lead study author Hannah E. Gardener, epidemiologist in the department of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Controlling for other factors, a lack of smoking and ideal blood-sugar levels were independently associated with better brain performance,” Gardener says.

For optimal brain health, adopt as many GCBH recommendations as possible:

1. Manage blood sugar

High blood sugar levels can cause inflammation, which may harm brain cells: People with type 2 diabetes with elevated levels of blood sugar are at an especially increased risk of memory problems. Lows may be problematic, too: A June 2021 study in the journal Neurology which looked at older people with type 1 diabetes found that a history of very high and very low blood sugar levels increased dementia risk sixfold.

2. Aim for 120 on blood pressure readings

A landmark study cited in the GCBH report found that keeping the first of your two blood pressure numbers less than 120 lowers risk for mild cognitive impairment, a condition that is often a precursor to dementia. Lead author Jeff D. Williamson, M.D., a gerontologist at Wake Forest School of Medicine, says the study proved that the same blood pressure goals that have lowered the risk of heart attacks, stroke, heart failure and death from heart disease by 30 percent have now been shown to lower early dementia by almost 20 percent. Making healthy lifestyle changes (even losing 10 pounds) can get you there. So can taking blood-pressure-lowering medication. Williamson recommends starting with medication, then asking your physician if you can taper off as you adopt healthier habits.

3. Maintain a healthy weight

A heart-healthy diet is brain-healthy, according to an earlier report from the GCBH. To protect your memory, cut back on excessive amounts of salt, sugar, calories, alcohol and saturated fats and try a heart-healthy diet. A few examples include: the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes olive oil, fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds; the DASH diet, which is high in potassium, magnesium and calcium and low in sodium, to keep blood pressure down; and the MIND diet, a hybrid of the two.

4. Get moving

Regular exercise bathes your brain in freshly oxygenated blood and is one of the most important things you can do to preserve your memory. It’s also a stress reducer. Aim for at least 2 hours weekly of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or dancing, and two or more days per week lifting weights, climbing stairs or doing heavy-duty gardening to strengthen muscles. Standing and taking a lap around the house every hour also benefits your cardiovascular health and your mind; set an alarm on your phone as a reminder.

5. Minimize stress 

Exercise helps, but so does maintaining an active social life (which wards off loneliness), practicing yoga or meditation and going to therapy if you have woes that weigh on your heart and mind.

6. If you smoke, quit

Everything about smoking that can cause heart attack, stroke and irregular heartbeat can also damage your brain. Even without a catastrophic event, smoking thins the part of the brain that controls memory, speech, language and perception. Lower volume in this area has been associated with mild depressive symptoms. The AHA offers these tips to help stop smoking.

7. Practice good sleep hygiene

Always exhausted? Chronic poor sleep can put you at a higher risk for heart disease, depression, dementia and other diseases. Shoot for seven to eight hours of sleep nightly. When you fall short, a 20-minute early-afternoon nap may help. If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or you suspect you may have sleep apnea (loud snoring and gasping for air are symptoms), talk to your doctor about seeing a sleep specialist. These physicians can lend you a device to take home that monitors sleep quality, so you can get treatment for any problems.

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