What habits do you maintain in order to have the best heart health? Do you try to exercise regularly or eat mostly healthy foods? Well it turns out that the very habits that can help you to secure heart health can also protect your brain and help to limit the risk of mental decline and dementia. In a sense, you’re getting a double bang for your efforts when you strive for heart health – your second payoff is brain health!
Your heart and brain are fed by blood flow which brings oxygen and nutrients to these and other vital organs. If your blood vessels become narrowed, partially blocked or fully blocked, then circulation is impaired and disease occurs. In the case of a full blockage to the heart, you can sustain a heart attack, while a blockage in the carotid arteries can cause a massive stroke. More subtle hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis can herald various stages of heart disease, or in the case of the brain, cognitive impairment and risk of dementia.
How can you limit atherosclerosis?
A simple check list called “Life’s Simple 7,” created by the American Heart Association (AHA) helps people to live their best life by making seven important health habit choices. These “seven” not only help to support a healthier heart, but also support brain health. The AHA suggests that if you can check off the boxes next to these seven goals, it’s like doing a life check and the resultant “heart score” that applies to your overall heart health, also apples to supporting brain health. The simple 7 are:
Manage blood pressure – High blood pressure has been called the silent killer because it can often present with few symptoms. Having high blood pressure strains the heart and is a significant risk factor for stroke.
Control your cholesterol levels – Having high cholesterol, specifically a high LDL (bad cholesterol) can contribute to plaque formation in the arteries that can ultimately occlude and harden arteries, causing heart disease, stroke, or cognitive decline.
Keep blood sugar at optimal levels – High blood sugar can cause damage to heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves. People who have diabetes are at higher risk of cognitive impairment.
Embrace regular physical activity – Daily physical activity can manage weight, keep arteries patent and support both heart and brain health.
Aim for a healthy, balanced diet – How much you eat and your specific food choices can dramatically impact your risk for heart disease and cognitive dysfunction.
Maintain a healthy weight – Excess weight is a risk factor for multiple diseases, including cancer and heart disease, and can contribute to late -life dementia.
Stop smoking – Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of heart disease and strokes. Smoking has also been linked to increased risk of dementia.
When your doctor suggests that you should adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle, he should also suggest that those same habits can help to prevent or delay onset of dementia. Just seven steps can lead to big changes.
We’re all living longer and statistics suggest that by the year 2030, nearly 75 million people worldwide could have dementia. It’s also clear that atherosclerosis, which used to be a disease that started in middle age, is now associated with teens and young adults, driven mostly by poor lifestyle choices. Though statins offer excellent treatment for high cholesterol and management of atherosclerosis, the key to limiting dementia (and heart disease) is prevention. Diet and exercise are a good starting point, but keep in mind that achieving Life’s simple 7 can really preserve heart and brain health.
The new document released by the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association strongly recommends recognizing that so many of the modifiable risk factors for heart disease are also linked to brain health. It’s likely not a discussion point that the average doctor offers when advising a patient on healthier lifestyle choices; avoiding diabetes or heart disease are usually the goals. Given that it can take some pretty creative counseling to get patients motivated enough to change entrenched unhealthy habits, raising the implications of dementia or cognitive decline as “an additional reason to change your habits,” might just be the extra nudge necessary to convince patients to achieve Life’s simple 7. What helps your heart can help your brain too!
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”