In 2007 when attempting to understand what a beautiful, happy healthy brain looks like scientists invited Tibetan buddhist monks into their research labs. Their goal was to observe happiness, compassion, gratitude and the positive effects of meditation has on the brain.
When the monks arrived at the lab, the scientists eagerly gestured for the monks to lie down head facing the MRI machine.
“We’re going to slide you into the machine so we can see how your brains work” said the scientists.
“Why do you want to see our brains working? the monks asked.
“So that we can see happiness in your brain” one of them replied.
This was met with riotous laughter by the monks.
The scientists were genuinely confused by the chorus of belly laughs in the lab. When finally they calmed, seeing their faces, the monks shared “It’s funny that you want to see happiness in the brain….
…..when we all know it comes from the heart”.
That was last 2000s.
15 years later, the heart health and brain health connection is gaining more evidence as a key player in the fight to protect and maintain a beautiful healthy brain for life.
- Keeping your heart healthy, you also lower your risks for brain problems such as strokes and dementia (CDC,2022) which can affect your cognitive health.
- What is Cognitive Health? A really important part of overall brain health, Cognitive Health relates to your thinking, learning and memory skills. When your cognitive health declines, it can impact your ability to do everyday tasks like shopping, banking, cooking and even your personal cares. We focus a lot on this in the Memory and Thinking Hub
- By reducing heart health risks we can affect a 30% reduction in overall dementia cases worldwide. That’s 1 in 3 people missing this cognitive decline destiny!
- Heart health and your mood: Coronary Heart disease ( a type of disease where the blood vessels of the heart can’t provide enough nutrient rich blood the heart) and mental illness are among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Decades of research has revealed several, and sometimes surprising, links between CHD and mental illness, and has even suggested that both may actually cause one another (NIH, 2022)
- According to the Global Council for Brain health, simply changing your lifestyle habits can improve your heart and brain health.
In this article we share:
Your Heart Health Matters For Your Brain Matter
Your heart pumps blood throughout your entire body, including your brain, which means that damage to blood vessels can cause serious health issues such as heart disease, strokes, and dementia. By keeping your blood vessels healthy, you can sustain your heart health and brain function.
The brain is nourish by one of the body’s richest networks of blood vessels Every time the heart beats, it pumps 20 to 25 percent (or more) of the blood to the brain, where brain cells use 20 to 25 percent of that blood’s oxygen to function normally. Because of this, many factors that damage blood vessels may also damage brain cells and increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
- studies show that as many as 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease. (Alz Association, 2014)
Is Your Heart Age An Indicator of Your Brain Health Future?
“I’m 54 and but my doctor says I’m operating as a 46 year old.” These type of statements are referring to chronological age (years) versus biological age which is based on other measures of performance.
A research team at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx set out in order to determine whether having certain heart disease risks “Heart Age” at midlife could be associated with cognitive decline 10 years later.
The research team calculated a Heart Age score for 1,139 women women which was based on their age, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
The study found that high blood sugar, type 2 diabetes, belly fat, AND a heart age score that was greater than a woman’s real age during midlife, and a low level of physical activity were associated with significant declines in cognitive function 10 years later.
The authors concluded that middle age is an important time to change behaviors to lower blood sugar, diabetes, waist circumference, and heart age score, and thereby reduce the risk for cognitive decline later in middle age.
This is consistent with other findings as well.
- The LANCET 2017 breakthrough publication was a public health alarm bell which showed that reducing lifetime risk for heart health issues was strongly linked to a dramatic decline in people living with dementia over 30%. This has since been revised to suggest 40% in 2020 (The LANCET, 2020)
- Obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and social isolation can negatively impact both physical, mental and overall cognitive health.
Heart Health Conditions and The Brain
It’s well established by medical science that the diseases and conditions associated with blockages in the arteries of the heart are also associated with blockages in other parts of the body, including blood vessels in the brain.
In short it comes down to damage of the blood vessels, the ones that carry oxygen and nutrients to the organs of the body. Arterial (vessels carrying nutrient rich blood) damage causes blockages which can lead to heart disease and heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease, vascular dementia, and death.
Some health conditions and unhealthy habits can damage blood vessels, putting your heart and your brain at risk for serious problems.
- Stroke , sometimes called a “brain attack,” happens when a clot or a plaque blocks a blood vessel in the brain or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. When this happens, brain tissue dies, which can lead to memory loss and disability
- Vascular dementia: can happen as a result of a series of small, “silent” strokes, sometimes called “mini-strokes.” Dementia can cause memory loss, slowed thinking, and personality changes.
- More research is linking Alzheimer’s dementia to the same risk factors that cause heart disease, strokes, peripheral vascular disease, and vascular dementias: obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. (Iadecola, 2016)
- People with these risk factors are significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as well as
- Those people living with Alzheimer’s are observed to have reduced brain blood flow (Feinkohl et al, 2018)
High Blood Pressure And Your Brain’s Protection
The protective tight mesh around the brain, the Blood Brain Barrier is observed to be impacted in those people living with hypertension.
Much like a net around the brain, the barrier catches and prevents drugs, organisms and toxins from entering the brain. Hypertension appears to create more “gaps” in the net.
The “how this happens” isn’t well understood, but the impact of it is a poor interaction between the immune system, vascular (blood) and nervous system ( brain).
In the end, the brain doesn’t win in this event and gets damaged.
- Current evidence suggests that Blood Brain Barrier, may cause and or contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease progression (NIH,2022)
- The FINGER study in 2018, also tackled heart health issues in their randomised controlled trial for at risk older people living with mild cognitive impairment. The study reported that those who participated in the active part of the program ( the intervention group) were less likely to experience dementia that those who did not do the program. The updated worldwide application of this program continues to demonstrate “neurodegenerative and vascular pathology co-occur” meaning if you have a heart heart issue it’s likely a brain health issue will also be present especially in older people (Rosenberg et al, 2020).
Heart Health And Mental Health
A report by the American Heart Association (2021) shows an increasing appreciation of how psychological well-being can contribute both negatively and positively to cardiovascular health and reduced cardiovascular risks.
Based on a review of the current literature the AHA , made the following statements
- There is reasonable evidence showing a clear association between psychological health and Coronary Vascular Disease (CVD) and risk;
- There’s growing evidence that psychological health may be causally linked to biological processes and behaviors that contribute to and cause CVD;
- Depth of data to support interventions to improve psychological health can have a beneficial impact on cardiovascular health; simple screening measures can be used by healthcare providers for people living with or at risk for CVD to assess psychological health status;
- Supporting a person’s mental health is advisable in the evaluation and management of patients with or at risk for CVD.
The mind, heart, and body are interconnected and interdependent. Factors, conditions, and disease states (both physical and psychological) that affect 1 of these 3 components of a person can affect the other 2 components. It is well established that systemic body factors and conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, can adversely affect the heart and the broader cardiovascular system.
This work challenges clinicians particularly to that it’s not just about symptom treatment, but also working with the person as a whole.
To Protect Your Brain Start Taking Care Of Your HeartThe most recent guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend that people at high risk for cardiovascular disease start taking steps now to reduce their risk. This includes
- being physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing excess weight if needed, quitting smoking, managing diabetes, controlling cholesterol, and getting regular screenings for cardiovascular diseases.
The Brain Heart Connection -Experts Agree
According to the Global Council ( The Council) for Brain Health, the best evidence to date suggests that “what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.” The Council is a group of scientists, health professionals, and policy makers who have confirmed that heart health and brain function are directly linked.
The Brain-Heart Connection Report from The Council on Brain Health show that studies investigating the rate of new cases of dementia among groups of people over several years have found to simultaneous decline in new cases when, you guessed it, there was an improvement in heart health in these groups.
Their position is clear
- Keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy likely reduces your risk for cognitive decline and dementia.
- Cardiovascular risk factors (e.g., high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and obesity) are bad for brain health.
- The more of these cardiovascular risks you have, the greater your risks of cognitive decline.
- But, there is strong evidence that reducing or treating your cardiovascular risk factors can help to reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia
Would You Like Fries With That? 2 for One Limited Offer!
Much like the ad or the offer at the service station what is good for the heart is good for your brain.
In short, taking steps to manage cardiovascular risk factor such as blood pressure and lipid levels, no matter how old you are, improves your chances of remaining sharp as you get older.
11 Actions To Help Your Heart-Brain Health
The Council’s report highlights a number of actions for individuals, health professionals and policy makers. For you specifically consider these 11 Actions For Health and Brain Health
- Lead a physically active life.
- Maintain a healthy weight with good nutrition and exercise.
- Don’t start smoking, and if you do smoke, quit.
- Check your blood pressure regularly. If it’s too high, work with a health professional to lower it safely.
- Have your cholesterol and lipid profile checked regularly. If it’s too high, take steps to reduce it.
- Keep blood sugar within a healthy range, as defined by your health care provider.
- If you have diabetes or prediabetes, consult with a health care provider and nutritionist in order to help you manage these conditions.
- Even after starting medication or lifestyle change, continue to regularly monitor blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight.
- People with symptoms of sleep apnea should be tested and treated if diagnosed.
- Take the time and steps to manage your stress effectively.
- Investigate any changes that threaten your thinking and memory. If you’re over 50 years of age, we suggest getting a check up each year that covers these factors as well as your “brain’s performance”. You’ll get a heart function assessment with your local doctor but how often is your memory health checked?
To Protect Your Brain Start Taking Care Of Your Heart
Show your heart and brain some love by making changes to your life today. So, what’s one thing from this article that you can apply to your life now?
- Is there something you can take out that your doing
- Do you need to book that check up
- Problems with sleep, what could you do about it?
- Concerned about your memory, get it checked out.
If you’re not sure where to start, or you’re concerned about your memory at OT Brisbane we offer cognitive fitness assessments in our Memory and Thinking Hub which includes
- Lifestyle Assessment: Identify what are your cognitive health risks
- Memory and Thinking Assessment: Get a check up of your cognitive skills and learn what you can do to do improve them so you can do what matters in your life.
You’ll get a plan to help you reduce your risks and improve your brain health so you can do what matters in your life.
If this is of interest and you’d like to learn more, please contact us HERE or call 1300 783 200.