Why a healthy heart can also mean a sharper brain


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Advice to stay "young at heart" might be worth taking a little more literally, according to a new study. Researchers from Columbia University and the University of Miami have found that a healthy heart may help prevent a decline in brain function as we age. Their promising findings are published in Journal of the American Heart Association.


Look close

The team looked at data from a racially diverse group of older adults using the American Heart Association's (AHA) "Life's Simple Seven" definition of cardiovascular health. The AHA plan advocates tobacco avoidance, ideal levels of weight, physical activity and healthy diet, as well as monitoring of blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose. They found that having better cardiovascular health factors was associated with better brain processing speed when the study began and less cognitive decline approximately six years later.

"Achieving the health metrics of Life's Simple 7 is associated with a reduced risk of strokes and heart attacks, even among the elderly," says Dr. Hannah Gardener, neurologist at Miami and the study's lead author. "Finding that they may also impact cognitive, or brain function underscores the importance of measuring, monitoring and controlling these seven factors by patients and physicians," she says.


Think fast

For the research, 1,033 participants with an average age of 72 were tested in terms of memory, thinking and brain processing speed. Brain processing speed tests measure how quickly a person is able to perform tasks that require focused attention. Approximately six years later, 722 of the original participants repeated this cognitive testing — allowing researchers to measure performance over time. Overall, the group was 65% Hispanic, 19% black and 16% white.

As well as better initial brain processing speed, the team found that having healthier cardiovascular factors was also associated with less deterioration over time in processing speed, memory and executive functioning — the brain's abilities concerning focusing, time management and other cognitive skills. The healthy brain association was strongest, the team found, for nonsmokers with ideal fasting glucose and ideal weight.


Carpe momentum

Though early results look good, the team says more studies are needed to fully assess the true benefits of treating such factors to reduce brain function decline. "In addition," says Gardener, "further study is needed to identify the age ranges, or periods over the life course, during which cardiovascular health factors and behaviors may be most influential in determining late-life cognitive impairment, and how behavioral and health modifications may influence cognitive performance and mitigate decline over time."

Nevertheless, while we wait for more results to come in, it goes without saying that heart health should always be one of your top priorities. So whether you're cutting back on sodium, managing blood pressure or just starting out with the basics, you can be sure we've always got your healthy cardiac routine in mind.