Filling in crossword puzzles isn’t the only way to maintain a healthy brain after reaching middle age. Researchers have discovered that taking care of your heart today can lead to having a healthier brain tomorrow.
Researchers rated each participant in a study according to the American Heart Association’s ‘Life’s Simple 7’ guidelines, which are intended to promote maintaining good cardiovascular health. The guidelines include eating a healthy diet, maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol, keeping blood sugar low, eating a healthy diet, regularly exercising, maintaining a heathy weight, and avoiding smoking.
Each participant was given a score between 0 and 2 per guideline for a maximum score of 14 points based on how well they followed each recommendation when the study began. Researchers tracked 518 of the participants for 30 years, issuing follow-up exams and brain scans. Researchers reviewed tests and scans and discovered that for every one-point improvement in a person’s initial score, there was essentially one year less of brain aging and shrinkage. Brain shrinkage has been associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
“The brain is supplied by this rich network of blood vessels, which provides the oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood it needs to function normally. A healthy heart helps ensure enough blood is pumped through these blood vessels, and healthy blood vessels help ensure that network is intact to supply the entire brain with nutrients and oxygen. As the score increases, you see a better result for brain structure,” Dr. Michael Bancks, the study’s lead researcher, said.
Though previous studies have discovered people in middle age and beyond can decrease their risk of dementia by improving their heart health, this study is the first to prove that the way we treat our cardiovascular health while we’re young can dramatically impact brain health during our later years. The choices we make regarding our health while young will reach far into our lives.
“These findings are exciting because these are all changes that anyone can make at a young age to help themselves live a long and healthy life. This may mean that heart health may have an impact on brain function in early life, but more study needs to be done to confirm this theory,” Dr. Bancks said.
If you think you could better mind your own cardiovascular health, it’s important to note that all facets of the guidelines were not weighted equally. If you want to see the biggest impact on brain health later, the best thing you can do is stop smoking if you already smoke, and not start smoking if you don't already. Smoking had a stronger correlation with a decrease in brain volume than any other lifestyle factor, the study showed.
"This isn't putting us in a hopeless situation. It's another alert that we can start at an even earlier age to maintain our brain health," Dr. Selva Baltan, a neuroscientist, said.
If you did practice unhealthy lifestyle choices early in life, like eating poorly and being sedentary, it still isn’t too late to turn your health around, and the sooner you begin to make changes, the better off you will be in the long run.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.