Want to Protect Your Brain? Start With Your Heart

In February, we are surrounded by hearts. They’re everywhere—in the grocery store, shopping malls and email inboxes. You may also hear more about heart health, because February is  American Heart Month. Taking steps to strengthen your heart yields a bonus—you’ll be protecting your brain as well.

It turns out that heart and brain health are inexorably linked, according to a new Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) report on brain health and nutrition.

With every beat, the heart pumps 20 to 25 percent of blood to the brain. That blood carries food and oxygen to brain cells to help them function normally. An unhealthy heart system can wreak havoc on your brain. High blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes all damage the arteries that carry oxygen to vital organs, including the brain, says Lawrence Appel, M.D., director of the Welch Center for Prevention at  Johns Hopkins University and a GCBH panel member for the recent nutrition report.

“Damage to those vessels occurs gradually over decades, actually a lifetime,” Appel says. “Once there is damage to blood vessels, then damage to the heart and brain occur.” In addition to damage to the arteries, higher levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar probably directly damage brain and heart tissues as well, he says.

So how can we protect our hearts and  brains? Keep blood pressure and blood sugar under control, maintain a healthy weight and keep cholesterol low.

Considering this advice, it’s not surprising that the new report from the GCBH recommends a heart-healthy diet to help keep your brain strong.  The expert panel recommends a diet high in vegetables, fruits, fish and healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, nuts and olive oil. It discourages eating processed foods, fried foods and unhealthy fats, such as transfats and butter. Appel and colleagues published a study in November 2017 in the Journal of American Cardiology that found one of the diets detailed in the report—the DASH diet—was as effective as medication for some adults with high blood pressure. Find out more details about heart healthy/brain healthy diets on page 7 and 8 of the report.

Need more motivation? A new AARP survey of more than 2,000 men and women age 40 and over found that the more fruits and vegetables people ate, the better they reported their brain health and mental well being. A full 90 percent of those surveyed said they would eat a healthy diet if they knew it would reduce their risk of cognitive decline, heart disease or diabetes. According to the experts on the Global Council nutrition panel, including Appel, a heart-healthy/brain-healthy diet does just that.

So next time you see those heart-shaped candy boxes or Valentine’s cards in the store, think about protecting your heart and your brain.

Betsy Agnvall is a health editor and writer. She’s fascinated by research that helps us understand how to live our lives to the fullest – keeping mind and body strong and sharp. In addition to working with AARP media, she previously worked as a freelance writer for The Washington Post, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Safety and Health magazine and other publications.