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What's good for your heart is good for your head

You already know that healthy levels of blood pressure and cholesterol are good for your heart. Now there’s growing evidence that they may also help defend your brain against dementia — and even depression — as you get older.

“Because there’s still no cure for dementia, the best thing we have at the moment is prevention, and as a general rule, the things that are good for your heart are also good for your head,” says Associate Professor Sharon Naismith of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Centre.

Good for the heart – good for the brain?

The reason why heart-healthy habits are good for your brain as well as your heart is partly because both the heart and the brain rely on healthy blood vessels to supply them with oxygen and nutrients via the blood.

Over time, blood vessels can become damaged by:

  • High blood pressure — this stiffens and ages blood vessels.
  • Too much bad LDL-cholesterol— this sticks to the walls of blood vessels and, along with other substances, can cause a build-up of plaque.

As a result, it is harder for blood to flow through the arteries and smaller blood vessels.

Research now suggests that having high blood pressure and high cholesterol in middle age increases the risk of developing dementia later in life. Dementia – which is not a normal part of ageing – is one of the most common reasons that people require residential care in Australia.

Good reasons to care for your arteries

Besides lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke, healthy blood vessels may also:

  • Reduce the risk of vascular dementia. After Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia. It may be caused by damage in the large arteries of the brain as well as to the smaller, more fragile blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygen, explains Sharon Naismith.
  • Lower the impact of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s still a lot to learn about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease but research shows that people with the condition decline faster if their blood vessels are damaged by high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Some studies also suggest that high levels of blood cholesterol may contribute to the harmful plaque (amyloid plaque) that builds up in the brain, leading to Alzheimer’s disease, says Sharon Naismith. More research needs to be done to confirm this.
  • Lower the risk of depression over the age of 50. When depression develops in people over 50, damaged blood vessels in the brain may be playing a part. Research suggests that changes to these blood vessels disrupt the circuits in the brain that regulate mood and thinking. This doesn’t mean that blood vessel damage actually causes depression, Sharon Naismith stresses, but it may mean that the brain is less resilient to developing depression if a person experiences difficult life events.

Tips for reducing the risk of dementia

  • Quit smoking. Although there’s no strong evidence that links smoking to Alzheimer’s disease, smoking is known to damage blood vessels. Some studies have also shown that smoking affects memory as well as the brain’s processing speed.
  • Keep blood pressure healthy. Increases in blood pressure are usually more to do with lifestyle habits than getting older. Regular exercise, a diet rich in vegetables and fruit, reducing the amount of salt you eat and sticking to low-risk drinking levels are all good ways to help keep blood pressure down.
  • Get regular exercise. A number of studies suggest that physical activity, especially aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling or swimming) helps to prevent both cognitive decline (problems with thinking and memory) related to ageing, as well as dementia. There may be a few ways in which exercise helps, says Sharon Naismith, for example by helping to lower blood pressure, by promoting levels of protective brain chemicals (called neurotrophins) and because physical activity improves the supply of oxygen to the brain.
  • Skim the fat. Cutting down on saturated fat (found in animal foods such as fatty meats, poultry skin, full-fat dairy products, fast food and many commercial cakes, pastries and biscuits) helps to reduce levels of bad LDL-cholesterol – and helps trim your waistline too. Both obesity and high levels of saturated fat in the diet have been linked with a higher risk of cognitive decline.

Can taking supplements help your brain?

Although some research in this area is promising, it’s still inconclusive. Some evidence suggests that taking omega-3 (fish oil) supplements may have anti-inflammatory benefits for the brain, helping to slow or prevent cognitive decline and help avert dementia as well as depression. But again, more research needs to be done. (Take note that because omega-3 has potential blood-thinning effects, anyone taking anti-coagulant medication such as warfarin should talk to their doctor before taking omega-3 supplements).

Further information

Brain and Mind Research Institute

Mind your Mind

Sources

Almeida O Garrido GJ Alfonso H et al. 24-month effect of smoking cessation on cognitive function and brain structure in later life. NeuroImage. 2011; 55(4): 1480–1489.

Erickson KI Voss MW Prakash RS et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2011; 108(7): 3017-3022.

Mind your Mind. Blood pressure and dementia risk — the evidence . [online] Scullin, ACT: Alzheimer’s Australia. [accessed 18 Feb 2011] Available from: http://mindyourmind.org.au/

Mind your Mind. Cholesterol and dementia risk — the evidence . [online] Scullin, ACT: Alzheimer’s Australia. [accessed 18 Feb 2011] Available from: http://mindyourmind.org.au/

Mind your Mind. High blood pressure in midlife increases dementia risk . [online] Scullin, ACT: Alzheimer’s Australia. [accessed 18 Feb 2011] Available from: http://mindyourmind.org.au/

Naismith SL Glozier N Burke D et al. Early intervention for cognitive decline: is there a role for multiple medical or behavioural interventions? Early Intervention in Psychiatry. 2009; 3: 19–27.

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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Last published 1 April 2011