Your Heart and Your Head: New Brain Health Science
Would it surprise you to learn that your memory and other brain functions are tied to your heart health?
Your body is an intricate system of parts that perform their own jobs but depend on each other to thrive. It makes sense for a lot of body parts to depend on a healthy heart but your cognitive activity might be a less obvious connection.
Studies show that when your heart is healthy, your cognitive abilities can flourish but when your heart is weaker, so too is your mind.
Further investigation is needed for us to understand the whole picture but this insight alone should be further motivation to take action and protect your heart.
What do the studies show so far?
Alzheimer’s Disease and Your Heart
Blood circulation affects your ability to think. Poor circulation can cause symptoms that look like Alzheimer’s. According to Harvard Health Publications, as many as ⅓rd of initially diagnosed dementia and Alzheimer’s cases are actually the result of vascular problems and poor blood flow.
As we know, your heart is responsible for pumping your blood and issues like high cholesterol and clogged arteries can create blood flow problems for your whole cardiovascular system. Turns out, not only could you be at risk for heart disease and stroke, but these issues can also lead to cognitive decline.
While there are certainly other factors at play when it comes to memory loss and the onset of conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, Ornish.com attests that “several conditions known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease—such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol—also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Autopsy studies show that as many as 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s also have cardiovascular disease, but still most scientists agree that the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unclear.”
Not only do we not know exactly how or why Alzheimer’s develops, we also don’t have a cure for it. Researchers are confident that it is a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that causes Alzheimer’s.
We might not be able to do anything about our genetic predisposition, but we can do something about our lifestyle choices and environment. It stands to reason that if heart conditions can contribute to cognitive decline, maintaining good heart health should be part of that strategy.
Your Memories, Your Heart
Alzheimer’s isn’t the only cognitive issue that could arise due to heart health concerns. The Women’s Brain Health Initiative referenced a recent study where, “participants with decreased heart function, i.e., a low cardiac index, were two to three times more likely to develop significant memory loss. Given that one out of three participants in the study met the medical definition for low cardiac index, these findings are of great concern. This study marks the first time that cardiac index has been recognized as a risk factor for significant memory loss or dementia.”
As more of these studies are conducted and we understand this connection more intimately, there may be hope for treatment. Once scientists and doctors can map out the cause precisely, it’s much more likely that they will figure out how to prevent or reverse cognitive decline. However, these discoveries could be years, even decades away.
In the meantime, these discoveries are helping us to comprehend how our bodies work so we can take steps to keep our minds sharp.
A two-way conversation
Your brain and your heart are talking. No, not small talk, gossip or debates. It’s more like communicating through signals.
You’re probably aware that your brain sends signals all over your body “telling” your various parts what to do. Research from scientists at HeartMath now suggests that the heart is also able to send signals back to the brain and affect brain function.
One example of this communication at work is your stress response.
HeartMath.org explains: “HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. (This helps explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when we’re under stress.) The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes—actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.”
This is, again, new research. Further studies are required to understand the intricacies of this relationship.
In this example, you can see that your heart’s response to a stress stimulus shuts down your brain. Your heart inhibits your ability to focus, recall information or make new memories. If you’re under a lot of stress, this may be happening on a daily basis. It’s a major indicator of how key the heart/brain connection is to our daily lives.
HOW to protect your heart, to protect your brain
There are many measures you can take to ensure better heart health.
One specific approach encouraged for participants in some of the studies mentioned is outlined by CognitiveTherapeutics.com. This is a 7 step program that promotes a healthy overall lifestyle. They recommend:
- “Avoiding Tobacco
- Managing Weight Level
- Engaging in Physical Activity
- Eating a Healthy Diet
- Monitoring Blood Pressure Levels
- Controlling Cholesterol Levels
- Reducing Glucose Levels”
Other sources recommend more specific dietary choices, like reducing meat and dairy consumption and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.
When choosing foods for your heart, go for berries, dark-colored vegetables and nuts. These are great sources of antioxidants and other heart-healthy nutrients. Also, consider eating more fish, because it’s high in the omega–3 fatty acids that your heart and brain need.
A lot of the foods that support your heart are also great for your brain and for preventing memory loss, which I’m sure will no longer surprise you. To learn more about these foods, check out my recent post on the subject.
What kinds of additional studies are needed?
More studies need to be done to look at heart health and cognitive function in a wider range of age groups, as well as across racial and socio-economic lines. In addition, longer-term studies involving larger numbers of participants are needed.
What we know for sure
A healthy heart is vital for a long and healthy life. Now we know that you can help to make sure that your mind keeps pace with your body by treating your heart well, too.
Focus on maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Make healthy food choices, stay hydrated and stay active. Also, avoid toxins, like cigarette smoke and other synthetic chemicals.
Other heart-healthy activities are also recommended. Keep your stress levels low by getting plenty of rest — even practice meditation. Surround yourself with love and support by fostering healthy relationships with friends and family. Even having a pet has been shown to benefit heart health.
If you can manage all that, you’ll be on a steady path for preventing illness and encouraging longevity, as well as intellectual and emotional quality of life throughout your later years.