Healthy Heart, Healthy Head
Your brain relies on your heart and blood vessels for fuel, which means you can do a lot for your brain health by supporting your heart health.
The Cardiovascular Link to Cognition
Your heart is a major source of fuel for your whole body. It provides oxygen that your vital organs, including your brain, need to function.1a, 2a Up to a one-quarter of the blood pumped from your heart goes to your brain!1a But did you know that keeping active and having a healthy cardiovascular system can protect your brain, and therefore your cognitive health?2a
How does a healthy Cardiovascular System protect your Brain?
A healthy cardiovascular system protects against something called ‘vascular dementia’. This is when vessels that carry blood to the brain become narrower, harder or even blocked. This disrupts all that important blood flow to the brain, and can lead to memory and cognition problems.2b,3a, 4a
Exercise can provide protection against vascular dementia because it stimulates growth of new blood vessels that carry blood through the brain.3b One of the interesting effects of exercise is that it seems to make certain parts of your brain larger – those parts that are responsible for memory and thinking.3b
What happens if you have an unhealthy Heart?
On the flip side, poor cardiovascular health is bad for brain health. High blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diabetes can all damage the blood vessels that transport oxygen to your brain.1b
How can you help your Cardiovascular System support your Brain?
Luckily, there are many ways that you can promote good cognitive health, simply by looking after your heart health.
Work on your diet -
o The Global Council on Brain Health recommends a heart-healthy diet to keep your brain strong.5a This expert group suggests that you aim for a diet where you categorise food as follows.
A. Let’s call this the ‘awesome’ category – the things you want plenty of on a regular basis. Berries, green leafy vegetables, healthy fats (eg, olive oil and avocado), nuts and seafood are on this list.6a
B. The ‘B-grade’ foods – there’s nothing wrong with including B-listers, they’re just not quite as useful for heart and brain health. Beans, a range of fruits, lower fat dairy foods (eg, yoghurt), chicken and grains are on this list.6a
C. Caution is needed with foods in category C. You should limit your intake of these foods – they include pastries, fried foods, processed meats, red meat, higher fat dairy foods (eg, cheese and butter) and salt.6a
If you struggle with this, you can also consider two types of natural supplements: those that can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels for your heart health, and those that can help maintain a healthy mind.
Exercise several times per week -
Choose exercise that you enjoy and will stick to, because you need to keep it up. If you choose something moderate like brisk walking, aim for two-and-a-half hours per week.2c, 3c If you’d prefer to do more intense aerobic exercise like jogging or cycling, you can halve the time that you dedicate to exercise: about one-and-a-quarter hours per week will be enough.3c Muscle-strengthening activities are also recommended – at least twice per week.3c
Reach a healthy weight and stick to it -
Finally, a healthy bodyweight will help your heart help your brain. This is because research has told us that obesity may contribute to cognitive decline.4a, 4b
1. Agnvall E. Want to protect your brain? Start with your heart. Available at: https://blog.aarp.org/2018/02/05/want-to-protect-your-brain-start-with-your-heart Accessed September 2018.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brain health is connected to heart health. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/features/heart-brain-health/index.html Accessed September 2018.
3. Corliss J. A stronger heart may keep your brain young. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/a-stronger-heart-may-keep-your-brain-young-201602249182 Accessed September 2018.
4. American Stroke Association, American Heart Association. Protect your heart, protect your brain. Available at: http://www.strokeassociation.org/STROKEORG/AboutStroke/UnderstandingRisk/Protect-Your-Heart-Protect-Your-Brain_UCM_439306_Article.jsp#.W1fanNgzZTY Accessed September 2018.
5. AARP. Nutrition and brain health. Available at: https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/nutrition Accessed September 2018.
6. Global Council on Brain Health. Brain food: GCBH recommendations on nourishing your brain health. Available at: https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/health/brain_health/2018/01/gcbh-nourishing-your-brain-health-report-english-aarp.doi.10.26419%252Fpia.00019.001.pdf Accessed September 2018.