There’s mounting evidence that some of the best things you can do for your brain are also some of the best for your body.
A new scientific advisory from the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, published in the journal Stroke, promotes seven simple steps people can take to keep their brains healthy and reduce their risk of cognitive decline as they get older.
The steps include managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar normal, getting physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing extra weight and quitting (or never starting) smoking.
These steps also help prevent heart disease and stroke, and that’s no coincidence. In recent years, research findings have become strong enough to recommend these steps—typically recommended to help hearts and lungs—for brain health, as well, say the report’s authors. “In the 1990s we began to notice that the traditional cardiovascular risk factors were not only related to stroke and heart attack and other cardiovascular disease, but they may also be precursors of cognitive impairment,” says vascular neurologist Dr. Philip Gorelick, chair of the advisory’s writing group.
Research in the early 2000s first linked cardiovascular risk factors like clogged arteries to Alzheimer’s disease, says Gorelick, and an Institute of Medicine (IOM) paper in 2015 touted heart-healthy strategies, like managing high blood pressure and diabetes, as important ways to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
“Once the IOM released its report, we decided it was time to more forward and think more seriously about advocating for brain health along with heart health,” says Gorelick. The advisory group reviewed 182 published studies while writing their recommendations.
The brain needs adequate blood flow to function optimally, and when blood flow is slowed or blocked—because the heart isn’t pumping properly or the arteries are filled with plaque—brain tissue can become damaged, Gorelick says. Elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar can all impair blood vessels leading to the brain and can cause strokes or mini-strokes that can lead to subsequent cognitive decline, called vascular dementia.
But studies show that following these seven steps can help people maintain a healthy brain—defined in the report as one that can pay attention, receive and recognize information from the senses, learn and remember, communicate, solve problems, make decisions, support mobility and regulate emotions. Staring as early as possible is also key, say the advisory authors, since narrowing of the arteries can begin in childhood.
More research is still needed to further define optimal brain health as people age and to determine the best combination of lifestyle and medical strategies to help achieve it. The advisory authors also stress that traditional brain-boosting activities—like continuing education and social interactions throughout life—are still important for mental health.
“Alzheimer’s disease has traditionally been thought of as a so-called neurodegenerative disorder, and people don’t usually associate heart health with it,” he says. “Now when a patient comes into the office, we can tell them with good authority that by controlling cardiovascular risk factors, we can reduce your risk of stroke and heart attack—but we may also be able to help preserve your cognition, as well.”