Healthy Hearts, Healthy Minds: A Brain Fitness Valentine

While it may be cold outside, February offers many ways to warm our hearts. This second month of the year brings us not only the romance of Valentine’s Day, but also marks American Heart Month. What better time to pause and consider why having a healthy mind is all about having a healthy heart as well?

Health professionals have long recognized the strong, intricate relationship between cardiovascular disease and memory impairment. Yet few of the folks I speak to who worry about memory loss realize that vascular-related diseases are actually the second leading cause of dementia in the U.S. In addition, brain injury from stroke is the leading cause of disability and the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

What exactly is the relationship between our hearts and our heads?

While many of us think of stroke or “hardening of the arteries” leading to dementia, the list of vascular related causes of intellectual impairment is actually quite long, and ranges from major cerebrovascular incidents to small vessel changes that can happen without obvious symptoms and go undetected. Recent recommendations by experts in the area suggest that a broader category of “vascular cognitive impairment” be adopted that more accurately reflects the complex relationship between neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and vascular changes in the brain.

Another significant development in our understanding of the heart-mind relationship is an increasing awareness of the degree to which the risk factors for dementia and cardiovascular disease overlap. Many of the lifestyle behaviors that have been found to increase risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias are well known to increase cardiovascular disease risk as well. Numerous studies have shown that obesity (particularly “belly fat”), sedentary lifestyle, hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes increase our overall dementia risk. Conversely, many of the lifestyle interventions that have been linked to improved brain fitness over time – regular aerobic activity, healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight – have also been proven ways to decrease risk for and better manage cardiovascular disease. Based on these findings, researchers now propose we consider a “metabolic cognitive syndrome.” Metabolic syndrome is a grouping of risk factors (high visceral body fat ratio, hypertension, high cholesterol, among others) that increase insulin resistance and risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While previously linked to vascular causes of cognitive decline, new research suggests that metabolic syndrome may also be linked to increased Alzheimer’s risk.

What do these recent developments mean to those of us looking to maintain our brain health? Here is some advice we can really take to heart:

Tip #1: Lead a lifestyle that is healthy for your heart and your brain. The current science offers even greater support to the importance of making healthier choices about our daily lives. Getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight are steps we can readily take that we know benefit our cardiovascular and cognitive well being.  Some dementia researchers are suggesting that we may be able to build what they have coined our “metabolic reserve” by practicing such good health habits. They suggest that “metabolic reserve” may give our brains more resilience and protection in the face of disease.

Tip #2: Make your cardiovascular health a priority. If maintaining a healthy mind over your lifetime is important to you, be sure you make you are taking care of your heart health as well. Vascular cognitive impairment is a leading cause of memory impairment, loss of function and decreased independence. The good news here is that, unlike Alzheimer’s disease, there are many lifestyle factors that can be modified (such as weight, diet, managing underlying medical conditions effectively) to reduce our risk for vascular cognitive diseases.

Tip #3: Consider adding some “ohm” to your day. Meditation or mindfulness exercises have been found to reduce stress, be an effective management for hypertension, and even allow better control over heart arrhythmias. One study even found that individuals with mild memory loss who practiced a simple, brief form of daily meditation not only improved on measures of intellectual performance but also had better cerebral blood flow. Try adding meditation, mindfulness practice, yoga, or tai chi to your day, even if just for a few minutes.

DR. CYNTHIA GREEN is a nationally recognized expert in memory fitness and brain health, as well as a respected keynoter, and acclaimed author including her book “30 Days To Total Brain Health.”  To Preview her keynotes and video, Click HERE