A Healthy Heart Slows Brain Aging

Keeping your heart healthy may slow your brain’s aging.

There’s yet another reason it’s smart to do all you can to keep your heart healthy: fit hearts are linked with younger, larger brains according to research out of Boston University.

For the study, published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association researchers looked at 1,504 people of the decades-long Framingham Offspring Cohort study to examine brain and heart MRI information. Their findings showed that the participants, who ranged from 34 – 84 years old, displayed signs that, as they aged, their brains began to shrink. Brain atrophy has long been considered a sign of aging, and is more severe in people with dementia.

But participants with a poorer Cardiac index — a measure of heart health — and whose hearts pumped less blood had brains that appeared older than the brains of those whose hearts that pumped more blood, the study found.

On average, a poor cardiac output aged the brain by nearly two years, researchers said.

This was true even for healthy people with no indications of cardiovascular disease but who had more ‘sluggish’ hearts. The link was found both in younger people (in their 30s) who did not have heart disease, as well as older participants who did.

“The results are interesting in that they suggest cardiac index and brain health are related,” Angela L. Jefferson, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and associate professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, said in a news release. “The association cannot be attributed to cardiovascular disease because the relationship also was seen when we removed those participants with known cardiovascular disease from our analyses.”

Yet the exact cause for a link between heart function and brain volume is still not fully understood. “There are several theories for why reduced cardiac index might affect brain health,” Jefferson said. “For instance, a lower volume of blood pumping from the heart might reduce blood flow to the brain, providing less oxygen and fewer nutrients needed for brain cells. It is too early to dole out health advice based on this one finding but it does suggest that heart and brain health go hand in hand.”


Top ways to keep your heart healthy

So if a more fit and youthful brain goes hand in hand with a healthy heart, what are the top ways to keep both in shape? Although we can do little change some risk factors such as family history or age, these healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way to help to prevent cardiovascular disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Don’t smoke

Smoking or using other tobacco products is one of the biggest risk factors for developing heart disease. Did you know that tobacco smoke contains more than 4,800 chemicals? Many of these chemicals can damage your heart and blood vessels, making them more vulnerable to narrowing of the arteries — which can ultimately lead to a heart attack.

The nicotine in cigarettes also causes the heart to work harder by narrowing blood vessels and increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Cigarette smoke also contains carbon monoxide, and this replaces some of the oxygen in your blood — which in turn increases your blood pressure by forcing your heart to work harder to supply enough oxygen. Even “social smokers” — who only smoke while at a bar or restaurant with friends — face an increased risk of heart disease.

The good news? Once you quit smoking — no matter how long or how much you smoked — your risk of heart disease drops dramatically within just one year.

Get moving

Regular exercise not only reduces risk of fatal heart disease, but it also helps to control your weight and reduce chances of developing other conditions that can strain the heart such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Exercise also reduces stress, which is thought to be a factor in heart disease. (See Don’t let stress make you sick.)

How much exercise is enough? Current guidelines recommend at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderately intense physical activity most days of the week. However, even shorter amounts of exercise offer heart benefits. (Remember you can break up your workout time into 10-minute sessions and still get the same benefits.) And activities like gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs and walking the dog all count toward a healthier heart. (Need inspiration to get started? See Fitness at any age.)

Eat heart-friendly foods

To enhance heart health, choose foods are those that are low in fat, cholesterol and salt. (See Cut salt, cut heart risk and Shake your addiction to salt.) Think lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Legumes, low-fat dairy and low-fat sources of protein and certain types of fish also can reduce risk of heart disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids — a type of polyunsaturated fat — are another component of a heart-friendly diet. They can decrease risk of heart attack, protect against irregular heartbeats and lower blood pressure. Some fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are a good natural source of omega-3s. Other sources include flaxseed oil, walnut oil, soybean oil and canola oil, and they can also be found in supplements. (See Top foods your heart will love.)

Saturated and trans fat, on the other hand, increase risk of coronary artery disease by raising blood cholesterol levels. Major sources of saturated fat include beef, butter, cheese, milk, and coconut and palm oils.

Trans fat may be even worse than saturated fat. This is because unlike saturated fat, it both raises your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol, and lowers your high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol. Sources of trans fat include some deep-fried fast foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarines and crackers. Look at the label for the term “partially hydrogenated” to avoid trans fat. (See How to make sense of food labels.)

Watch your weight

It’s been widely reported that obesity rates are on the rise in North America among both adults and children. (See Canada the fat.) These extra pounds (especially around the mid-section) can take a toll on your health – but keep in mind that even small reductions in weight can produce big benefits. Reducing your weight by just 10 per cent can decrease blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol level and reduce risk of diabetes. (See Give your metabolism a boost.)

Get regular health screenings

Be sure to stay on top of your numbers: High blood pressure and high cholesterol cause damage to your heart and blood vessels. But without regular testing, you won’t know if you have these conditions or if you need to take action.

(For more information, See 8 steps toward a healthy heart.)

Sources: American Heart Association news release; Mayo Clinic; Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association abstract

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