Heart and brain health: Perfect Together
Did you know that what’s good for your heart also will help keep your brain sharp?
“The link between heart and brain health makes sense,” says Kirankumar Patel, D.O., primary care provider with Crozer Health. “Both organs rely on your body’s network of blood vessels, which fuel them with energy from the food we eat and oxygen from the air we breathe. When you control conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol, you reduce your heart disease risk and improve your brain health, too.”
Heart and brain health risks
“Heart attacks are the most common condition we associate with blood vessel damage and blockages,” Dr. Patel says. “These occur when plaque buildup or a blood clot blocks flow of blood to the heart, cardiac tissue dies and can’t pump blood anymore.
Similar problems can affect the brain as well.
“Strokes happen when a clot or a plaque blocks a blood vessel to the brain or when a blood vessel bursts. Brain cells die, leading to memory loss and disability. Also, vascular dementia has been linked to multiple ‘silent’ mini-strokes. These prevent oxygen from get to different areas of the brain, causing memory loss, slowed thinking, and personality changes,” he says.
Here’s a quick overview of why heart disease risk factors can affect brain health as well:
High blood pressure
Uncontrolled blood pressure can damage blood vessels, causing them to narrow, rupture or leak. It also can cause blood clots in arteries, which can block blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke.
High blood sugar levels in your blood can makes blood vessels less elastic, reducing blood flow to your brain as well as the rest of your body.
For every pound gained, the body produces five additional miles of blood vessels to support the new fatty tissue. That makes your heart work harder and leads to high blood pressure, which can damage blood vessels that feed the brain.
When extra cholesterol in your blood attaches to artery walls, the body attacks it with white blood cells. That forms a foamy blockage called plaque that, along with inflammation, can decrease blood flow to the brain.
The chemicals in tobacco products increase plaque formation in the arteries. And, they can cause the blood to thicken and form clots inside veins and arteries.
Brain health matters
With each heartbeat, about 20 to 25 percent of the body’s blood is pumped to deliver oxygen and energy to the brain.
“When the brain doesn’t get what it needs to function, it can lead to problems with memory, concentration, learning, and other symptoms,” Dr. Patel says. “Poor cardiovascular health has also been linked to an increased risk of strokes, which can hurt brain function significantly. And, heart problems have been linked to an increased risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The first step, he says, is to work with your primary care provider to get high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol under control. That may begin with medications, but you can make lifestyle changes starting today to improve both your brain and heart health.
Taking control of your heart and brain health
Talk with your doctor about how you can incorporate the following changes into your lifestyle, depending on your own personal situation.
Maintain a healthy weight by eating a heart and brain healthy diet
Increase fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fiber-rich beans and legumes. Eat lean proteins and dairy. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats. Eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like tuna) at least twice a week. Smartphone apps and reputable online weight loss programs can give you good eating advice while keeping you motivated to reach your weight loss goals.
Boost your cardiovascular fitness and burn calories by exercising at least 30 minutes a day. Start slowly and steadily so you build your fitness over time to avoid injuries and follow your doctor’s recommendations for which exercises to avoid, if necessary. Smartphone apps and fitness trackers can give you extra motivation.
If you are addicted to cigarettes and other tobacco products, it’s tough to quit. Ask your doctor about smoking cessation programs or approaches like patches or electronic cigarettes that may work for you.
“Knowing that your heart and brain health are linked is an important motivator to making changes you need to make,” says Dr. Patel. “And, you can start making changes today. Your heart and your brain will thank you.”