If you’ve ever had a loved one suffer from dementia, you understand the extreme hardship it can place on a family. You watch your loved one lose touch with the world – feeling a mixture of sadness and fear. Fear because you wonder if you might one day deal with the same fate.
That’s why it’s important to do all you can – right now, right here – to keep your mind and body healthy for many years to come. One of the most surprising links recently discovered to brain health actually comes from an unexpected source… your heart!
We’ve talked before about heart health and why it’s so important. Now, new studies are showing that a good and strong heart may actually help our brains battle diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been taking steps to tackle what is being viewed as a global epidemic. Over 50 million people currently suffer from dementia – and these are our fathers, mothers, and grandparents. Sadly, that number is expected to triple by the year 2050.
To battle this outcome, the WHO announced a brave action plan. They conducted widespread research to compile a database of life-saving information. More importantly, they created a 96-page report to help people like us prevent this terrifying disease.
So… let’s take a look at some of their most important recommendations.
To kick things off, we noticed that one of the WHO’s topic recommendations for brain health goes hand-in-hand with common recommendations for heart health.
Seems like a strange connection, right?
Well, actually, it makes a bit of sense. Here’s why…
It all starts with your arteries, the blood vessels that allow for healthy blood flow and the delivery of oxygen to all the various parts of your body. We know that arterial damage causes blockages in those arteries, leading to decreased blood flow. This is turn, leads to heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and vascular disease.
When we turn our attention from your heart and arteries to your brain, we start to see some amazing similarities. We already know the things that clog the arteries of your heart can do the same thing to the arteries in your brain, but there’s more to it.
In the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s there are tube-shaped proteins that have gotten tangled up, these are known as neurofibrillary tangles. Research has shown that good blood flow is key to keeping those tubes clear, which prevents them from getting tangled.
In addition, researchers have found that people suffering from dementia have reduced blood flow in the brain and significant vascular damage. These clues have helped scientists form a new hypothesis about dementia: anything that reduces blood flow can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. This also makes the opposite true, anything that increases blood flow can reduce that risk.
So, a person with an unhealthy cardiovascular system is putting themselves at greater risk for brain issues down the line…
The WHO didn’t stop there…
They conducted even more research to further link the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia with heart problems – including heart disease, stroke, and vascular disease.
Thankfully some simple diet and lifestyle choices can help protect you from these conditions.
Physical activity – We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Getting your recommended physical activity each week can have a massive positive impact on your health. Studies have shown that physical exercise can significantly lower the risk of developing dementia, from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s. The WHO recommends 150 minutes/week.
Eating a plant-based diet – Studies have shown that following what is commonly known as the Mediterranean Diet can significantly reduce your risk of dementia. This diet is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and seafood. Shoot for five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
You will also want to avoid processed grains, excess sugar and sodium, saturated fats, like butter and fatty meats.
Additional Factors – While exercise and diet are the two most important factors, there are some other things you can do to reduce your risk. Avoid smoking and minimize your alcohol intake. Alcohol already affects your brain’s ability to form memories, even if you don’t have cognitive impairment.
A good sleep schedule, positive relationships and social engagement have also been shown to protect your cognitive function.
Considering these are things you should be doing anyway, this new information really serves as an added bonus. There aren’t any crazy lifestyle changes you need to worry about to protect yourself. This reinforces the idea that exercise and a healthy diet really do make a huge difference in your overall health and welfare.
And it’s never too late. Even those of us who have a family history of Alzheimer’s and dementia shouldn’t just chalk it up to genetics and throw in the towel. Choosing to live a heart-healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of dementia for everyone, regardless of family predisposition.
Take your life and your health into your own hands and follow these simple guidelines to ensure you live the longest, healthiest life you can.
Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis: Joseph Michael, Northey Nicolas Cherbuin, Kate Louise Pumpa, Disa Jane Smee, Ben Rattray; 2016
Vigorous exercise may counter cognitive decline in early Alzheimer’s: Harvard Women’s Health Watch; 2015
Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review of the Evidence: Sara Danuta Petersson, Elena Philippou; 2016