Create a healthy connection

The brain is a miraculous machine. It can regulate your body temperature, enable you to drive, and help you learn new dance moves. But it cannot do any of that without the heart.

In fact, it’s essential to have good cardiovascular health in order to have good brain health.

“The brain is a highly vascular organ,” explains Zaldy S. Tan, MD, medical director of the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care program. “It needs a steady supply of oxygen rich blood and the nutrients supplied by the blood to function well.”

Circulation and dementia

Blood vessel changes in the brain are linked to developing vascular dementia. This type of dementia is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent study from Vanderbilt University’s Memory & Alzheimer’s Center showed that people whose hearts did not pump out blood sufficiently were up to three times more likely to develop significant memory loss. Further research is needed to better understand the exact nature of cardiac dysfunction and its effects on brain function, and more specifically on dementia.

Several cardiovascular risk factors may contribute to dementia, including high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, and especially diabetes.

The good news is these conditions can be managed and possibly avoided.

The protective power of exercise

“Exercise and controlling your cardiovascular risk factors is the way to go,” says Dr. Tan. “Good physical activity leads to a healthier heart in general and is likely beneficial to the brain.”

While the exact relationship between exercise and prevention of dementia is not entirely clear, several studies do show that physical activity and exercise are associated with improved cognition and a lower risk of cognitive decline. In particular, research has shown a significant association between physical exercise and reduced risk of developing vascular dementia.

It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you do. What matters is that you increase your heart rate with regular physical activity. That can mean bike riding, walking on a treadmill, or swimming.

If you have been sedentary, know that every pedal, step, and swim stroke can help your heart get stronger. Make a plan and get started.

“Heart rate goes up but there are also other benefits,” says Dr. Tan. “Exercise can lower blood pressure and also improves one’s overall sense of well-being or mood.” Exercise can also reduce stress, which has been identified as a risk factor for both heart disease and dementia.

More ways to protect heart and brain

* Eat healthfully. The Mediterranean diet offers many protective benefits. The diet emphasizes whole grains, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, fish and shellfish and a minimal amount of red meat.

* Don’t smoke. The nicotine in cigarettes increases your blood pressure, lowers the amount of oxygen that reaches your heart, and damages blood vessels. A few years of not smoking can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. It usually takes several attempts to kick the habit. Medications, counseling and peer support all help.

* Maintain a healthy weight. Your blood circulates more easily and you are less likely to develop high blood pressure or heart disease at a healthy weight. A registered dietitian can help you create an eating plan with healthy foods you enjoy as well as provide you with strategies to help you stick to a healthy diet.

* Keep a log. Write down your physical activities and the foods you eat. It can show progress and help you identify where to make adjustments. If you have questions about getting started with an exercise plan, talk with your doctor.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Steps you can begin to take:

  • Get regular check-ups to identify if you are at risk for heart disease.
  • Adopt regular exercise; 30 minutes at least five days per week with a focus on increasing your heart rate.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.
  • Adhere to your health care provider’s suggestions on medications and other preventive strategies.

For more tips, visit the American Heart Association website at heart.org

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