Understanding The Heart and Brain Connection

The Heart-Brain Connection

Here’s an attention-grabber for you: Taking care of your heart is imperative to taking care of your brain.  If that fact doesn’t give you another reason to start taking your heart health seriously, nothing will.

How so? Let’s start with the brain.

The brain is an amazing thing.  It controls every function of the body. Interprets information from the outside world.  It embodies the very essence of the mind and soul. Emotion, creativity, intelligence, and memory:  all of these things are governed by the amazing, astonishing, and marvelous brain.

The brain also governs our thoughts, our memory, our speech, the movement of our arms and legs, and the function of every other organ in our body. It even determines how we respond to stress by regulating our heart and breathing rate. This is not an exhaustive list, by the way.

Now, there is a lot we do not know regarding how the brain does all this, and may never know.  However, we do know that it requires blood to function properly.  An essential feature of the brain is its enormous network of blood vessels. Billions of tiny capillaries carry oxygen, glucose, nutrients, and hormones to brain cells so they can do their work. So, even though the brain is only about two percent of the body’s weight, it consumes twenty percent of the body’s blood supply. Twenty Percent.

Think about that for a second.  Up to twenty percent of the volume of blood pumped by the heart goes to the brain. This connection between the heart and brain, by the way, is known as the cerebrovascular system. When the cerebrovascular function is impaired, the brain doesn’t get all the blood it needs, and functions like memory, learning, concentration, planning, judgment, mental acuity, and problem solving—all those things that we tend to associate with aging—are impaired.


Heart/Health Impact Study

A group of scientific researchers at the University of Miami performed a study to determine, among other things, the impact of a heart-healthy lifestyle on brain function. To do this they tested over a thousand people in their 60s and 70s whose heart health had been assessed using the American Health Association’s Life’s Simple 7.

Briefly, Life’s Simple 7 is a list put forth by the American Heart Association (AHA) that identifies seven key behavioral and lifestyle changes leading to ideal cardiovascular health.  They include blood pressure and cholesterol management, exercise, nonsmoking, and diet, among other things.  We’ll come back to those seven lifestyle changes later.

Back to our researchers at University of Miami.  What they discovered was that the folks who scored higher in their adoption of the AHA’s “Simple 7” healthy heart behaviors also scored higher on mental tests, compared with those who practices fewer healthy heart behaviors.  Moreover, a follow-up check several years later showed that these same higher performing folks actually showed decreased brain decline over time.  That’s pretty remarkable.

The Aging Brain

Let’s take it a step further. As we all know, loss of cognitive ability is a natural part of the aging process.  Or is it?  According to researchers, the answer to that question is “not necessarily”.

From the time of Aristotle, dementia—or senility as it was called—was viewed as a normal and inevitable consequence of growing older. This remained the conventional wisdom until around the 1970s when researchers discovered that, although the incidence of dementia increased with age, there was no age by which it was always developed.  Thus, it was not an inevitable consequence of aging, no matter how old they get. This has been evidenced by numerous documented accounts of supercentenarians who never experienced serious cognitive impairment.

Since this discovery was made, scientists have been asking why some folks lose brain function as they age, yet others do not. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), in their publication “Alzheimer’s Disease—Unraveling the Mystery,” reports scientists are uncovering specific actions people can take to help preserve healthy brain aging.  Among these are controlling risk factors for (here we go again) heart disease—such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight—and practicing an active lifestyle.

Link to Dementia

For some time now, researchers have been studying the role of the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems in the development of dementia. As discussed earlier, the brain needs a huge amount of blood to work properly. As people age, their arteries tend to narrow and the flow of blood to the brain slows. This obviously negatively impacts brain function.  Recent studies have found that heart disease may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia. Studies also link high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, and poor blood sugar management to increased cognitive impairment.

What do doctors and researchers recommend?  You guessed it.  Increased exercise, dietary changes, and cholesterol and blood sugar management, all of which are part of the healthy heart lifestyle.

AHA’s “7 Simple Steps”

What’s the conclusion?  If you are serious about keeping your brain healthy, following the AHA’s recommendations for maintaining healthy heart function is a good start.

So let’s go back to those “7 simple steps” for heart health, which at this point could also be referred to as 7 steps to heart and brain health.  They are:

  1. Stop smoking. Smoking builds up plaque in your arteries.  Plaque limits blood flow to the brain (and the rest of the body) which impairs brain function. Stop it.
  2. Get active. Exercise can decrease your blood pressure.  High blood pressure affects the cerebrovascular system. Start walking.
  3. Eat better. Turns out Mom was right.  Start eating right. Enough said.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight. Oh, that’s  Just lose weight.  Piece of cake. (Um, not.) But seriously, excess weight—especially belly fat—increases blood pressure which, again, affects the cerebrovascular system (are we detecting a theme here?). Put down the fork.
  5. Reduce blood sugar. Turns out, processed refined sugar is addictive and really bad for you.  Who knew?
  6. Manage blood pressure. Get it checked regularly. It should be below 120 over 80.
  7. Control cholesterol. Your total count of LDL cholesterol should be less than 200 mg. That’s the bad cholesterol. Get it down.

american heart association life simple 7