The graying of America has spurred widespread interest in ways to prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other declines in cognitive function. More than 47 million people worldwide have dementia, and by 2050, that number is expected to reach 131 million.
Scientific research suggests the way to keep your brain working well is to think about your heart health.
A recent advisory from the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association outlined seven ways a healthy lifestyle designed to promote good cardiovascular health also helps to keep the brain active and functioning normally late in life.
“The same risk factors that cause atherosclerosis are also major contributors to late-life cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Philip Gorelick, a vascular neurologist who chaired the panel that wrote the advisory.
The brain needs an adequate supply of oxygen and glucose to function properly and relies on the blood flow to deliver those. But in many people, blood vessels narrow or close off completely over the course of a lifetime through a process known as atherosclerosis.
One out of every 3 people is expected to have either a stroke or dementia or both. And subclinical or silent strokes occur at least five times as often as symptomatic strokes and can affect thinking, mood and personality.
The group recommended following guidelines for cardiovascular health known as Life’s Simple 7, which includes managing blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight, while eating a healthy diet and not smoking. Those same factors may foster ideal brain health as well.
While those guidelines may seem like common sense, few Americans meet all seven.
Some 75 million, or 1 out of 3 people in the U.S. have high blood pressure, and more than half, 54 percent, don’t have it under control. Another 22 million have diabetes, and more than a third are obese. All three are risk factors for cognitive decline.
“Over time we have learned that the same risk factors for stroke that are referred to in Life’s Simple 7 are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly for some of the other neurodegenerative disorders,” Gorelick said.
The advisory also cautioned that maintaining brain health might be a lifelong process. There’s an increasing body of evidence suggesting the longer someone is affected by any of the risk factors, the higher the risk. That could start as early as in the womb before birth. But certainly by the fourth decade of life, these risk factors can lead to brain lesions that can affect cognition later in life.
One study found that having a greater number of these cardiovascular health metrics at ideal levels between ages 18 and 30 translated to having better cognition 25 years later.
Manage blood pressure
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Keeping blood pressure under control helps to reduce the strain on your heart, arteries and kidneys. Blood pressure guidelines were recently revised, setting healthy levels at below 120/80.
High cholesterol contributes to plaque, which can clog arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke. Recommended cholesterol levels depend on your overall risk of heart disease. Talk to your doctor about what levels are right for you.
Keep blood sugar normal
Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage the heart, kidney, eyes and nerves. Keep fasting blood glucose levels to under 100 mg/dL.
Get physically active
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or some combination of the two). Thirty minutes a day, five times a week is an easy goal to remember.
Eat a healthy diet
Foods that have plenty of minerals, protein, whole grains and other nutrients but are lower in calories can help your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and nontropical vegetable oils. Limit consumption of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.
Maintain a healthy weight
Use a body mass index calculator to determine a healthy weight range for your height. Losing excess weight reduces the burden on your heart and circulatory system, reduces blood glucose levels and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and prevents heart disease.
Cigarette smokers have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do for your health. Even if you’re a long-time smoker, quitting can have immediate benefits for your heart, lung and brain health.