If you want to protect your brain, get busy protecting your heart. Lifestyle behaviors that boost cardiovascular health, such as physical activity and quitting smoking, also contribute to good cognitive health.1
A healthy brain can help you live a long, full life. But the brain needs adequate blood flow.2
“If the heart isn’t pumping strongly or the blood vessels leading to or in the brain are not working right, the brain won’t get enough of the food and energy it needs to function,” said David B. Wheeler, MD, Ph.D., stroke center medical director at Wyoming Medical Center and founder of Wyoming Neurologic Associates.
“Failing brain function can impair thinking, memory, concentration, energy levels, and bodily systems regulated by the brain,” Wheeler said.
“Stroke and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, are some of the most serious risks of poor brain and heart health”, he said.
The heart-brain connection
“Although it’s normal for the brain to become less efficient with aging, maintaining good heart health can help your brain function well and allow you to enjoy life in later years,” said Wheeler.
Heart health and exactly how it interacts with brain health remain an area of scientific investigation. Stiffening of the arteries, associated with uncontrolled blood pressure, is linked to reduced blood flow in the brain, according to a recent study led by Angela Jefferson, Ph.D., a professor of neurology and director of Vanderbilt Memory & Alzheimer’s Center.3
“It’s possible that harmful blood pressure entering the brain resulting from stiffening of the arteries might injure the brain’s smaller, more fragile blood vessels,” Jefferson said.
Another recent study found that even childhood cardiovascular health may have an impact on cognition in adulthood.4 High blood pressure has been linked to atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in the arteries.5
“If high blood pressure is left untreated and plaque accumulates, plaque may rupture6 and cause strokes,” warned Wheeler, noting that even though individually these little strokes may not cause symptoms, they can interrupt connections between regions of the brain.
“Ultimately,” he said, “high blood pressure and damage to arteries increase the risk for symptomatic stroke or hemorrhages in the brain, which can be debilitating or even fatal.”
Safeguarding your health
“Exercise is extremely important to maintaining good brain health,” Wheeler said. “A little bit of exercise is vastly superior to no exercise. I encourage my patients to just get up and do whatever it is they most enjoy.”
“A mixture of physical activities may be the most effective approach for improving brain health,” suggested Wheeler, adding that you can enhance physical activity by using your mind in games and social interactions during exercise.
“Another crucial factor for heart and brain health is not smoking,” he said.
“Quitting smoking today will do as much for lowering the risk of stroke and dementia as almost all other medical interventions combined,” he said. “Smoking is by far one of the most significant contributions to cerebrovascular disease.”
Three out of five Americans will develop a brain disease, which can impact quality of life as well as finances. The total cost of Alzheimer’s, dementia and stroke is projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2030.7
It’s never too late
Teaching young people to make healthy lifestyle choices early, including eating healthy, exercising and not smoking or vaping, is important. But at any age you can take action to improve your future health.
“We are never too young or too old to make healthy lifestyle choices,” Jefferson said. “Emerging evidence suggests vascular risk factors in mid-life may have important implications for cognitive decline in late life.”
“For example,” she noted, “newly published National Institutes of Health-funded research found that aggressive blood pressure management may reduce cognitive decline in middle age and older adults.”8
Furthermore, getting physically active during middle age may boost brain health later in life, and light strength training slows age-related changes in the brain.9
While you cannot change genetics, knowing about a family history of cardiovascular disease can help you in paying attention to lifestyle and controlling specific risk factors, such as cholesterol and blood pressure.
“Finally, remember to stay active intellectually, emotionally and socially,” Wheeler said. That might involve reading, listening to music, pursuing hobbies, or talking to friends.
“The whole point of this is to lead longer lives full of joy and excitement,” he said. “Live your life and your brain will be stronger for it.”
Things to Consider:
- If you’ve been living a sedentary life, get moving by walking a couple of times per week, then build on that foundation.
- Get high blood pressure under control to protect the vessels in and leading to the brain.
- Maintain social interactions to keep your brain active and strong.
1 “ Brain Health is Connected to Heart Health ,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 2018.
2 “ What is Brain Health ,” American Heart Association, accessed online July 2019.
3 “ Higher Aortic Stiffness is Related to Lower Cerebral Blood Flow and Preserved Cerebrovascular Reactivity in Older Adults ,” Circulation, October 2018.
4 “ Cardiovascular health may impact brain function as early as childhood ,” American Heart Association, October 2018.
5 “ Atherosclerosis ,” National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, accessed online July 2019.
6 “ What to know about atherosclerosis ,” Medical News Today, December 2017.
7 “ What is Brain Health ?” American Heart Association, accessed online July 2019.
8 “ Effect of Intensive vs. Standard Blood Pressure Control on Probable Dementia: A Randomized Clinical Trial ,” JAMA, February 2019.
9 “ Exercising in Midlife May Improve Brain Function Later in Life ,” American Heart Association, January 2019.
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.