If it seems that there are more people with dementia than there used to be, it’s not your imagination.
Right now 6.5 million Americans ages 65 and older are living with it, and by 2050 that number is projected to have risen to 12.7 million, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. A big reason: the state of our heart health.
Unhealthy Heart, Unhealthy Brain
Some health conditions and unhealthy habits can damage blood vessels, putting your heart and your brain at risk for serious problems.
A heart attack happens when plaque buildup or a blood clot blocks blood flow to the heart.
A 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.
A type of dementia called 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.
The results were striking: Across all demographic groups, the people who had higher scores on the measures of cardiovascular health did better on the mental tests than those who scored low. And a check several years later of mental acuity showed that the apparent brain benefits of a heart-healthy life persisted. The higher a person’s score on “Life’s Simple 7” the better.
Moving toward a healthier heart
If you’re struggling with any of these issues, there are things you can do to improve your mental health, and potentially your heart health as well.
Team up with a professional. A mental health specialist can help you work through many challenges, including serious trauma from your past. Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (which is designed to break negative thought patterns) and medication are just a few of the options that might help.
Make lifestyle improvements. When you’re depressed or struggling emotionally, healthy eating and exercise sometimes fall by the wayside. But making small, manageable daily improvements adds up to better overall health. Even small changes like adding more fruits and vegetables to your plate or walking around the house can help. Try to find physical activities you enjoy that can help you stay motivated.
Keep your blood vessels healthy.
The health of your arteries and veins is important to your heart health but it is also critical for brain health. Get your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol checked regularly and take steps to keep your numbers within a normal range.
Increase your physical activity, eat a Mediterranean diet and decrease your sodium consumption to lower blood pressure and cholesterol values. Finally, tobacco and alcohol use are impactful on brain health as well, so only drink alcohol in moderation and don’t smoke. Moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Measuring the Heart and Brain
Researchers gathered data from the UK Biobank, a large, long-term collection of biological and medical data of United Kingdom residents.
They evaluated 29,763 healthy participants (average age, 63) with cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR) imaging data (like an MRI for the heart), fluid intelligence, and reaction time.
To test fluid intelligence, they used 13 verbal-numeric reasoning questions, while reaction time was scored through a timed pair-matching exercise. They also looked for certain features within the heart’s structure that indicate a healthier organ.
“The Brain-Heart Connection” has received the seal of approval from multiple health-related associations.
“The American Heart Association endorses this report and commends AARP for focusing on the heart-brain connection. Despite growing science about this relationship, most people are not aware of it,” said Dr. Mitchell Elkind, president-elect of the American Heart Association.
A Medical Center expert on brain aging and dementia helped prepare “The Brain-Heart Connection.” Dr. Tom Mosley, Robbie and Dudley Hughes Distinguished Chair and director of The MIND Center, was one of the 11 experts selected worldwide to review research and prepare guidance for people over 50 and health care providers.