People who take good care of their hearts in their twenties have better brain health by the time they reach middle age, according to a new study.
In the report, published in the journal Neurology, the researchers looked at the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7, which is a list of key health factors that keep the heart healthy. The Simple 7 include keeping cholesterol in check, controlling blood pressure, reducing blood sugar, eating healthy, losing weight, stopping smoking and being active. It’s little wonder these activities are linked to brain health, since the brain is the biggest consumer of oxygen in the body; exercise, for example, makes the heart beat faster, which increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain.
The researchers looked at a group of 518 people around age 51 who had been tracked for 30 years. When the men and women started the study, they underwent a series of health measurements, then followup testing every two to five years and a brain scan 25 years into the study. Everyone was scored from 0-14 on how well they followed the Life’s Simple 7 guidelines.
Those who scored high at the start were more likely to have higher brain volume when they reached middle age. The study authors say that every point lower a person scored on the Life’s Simple 7 corresponded with about one year of age-related brain shrinkage.
“Larger brain volume, relative to head size, is associated with better health,” explains study author Michael Bancks, a postdoctoral fellow in preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in an email to TIME. “Brain atrophy—smaller brain volume—is associated with death and disability.” Prior studies have linked smaller brain size to lower cognitive function scores and an increased risk for health events like stroke in middle age and beyond.
Bancks says that further research following the same men and women will likely continue to yield new insights into the link between the heart and brain. “It will be important to see how cardiovascular health across the lifespan is related to brain structure changes in these individuals as they proceed through middle adulthood and into late adulthood,” he says.