The heart and the brain are intimately connected. In fact, the connection is so strong, researches and medical professionals now recommend focusing on heart health as a strategy for maintaining brain health. When brain health starts to diminish, thinking, memory, focus and concentration can become impaired and risk for neurodegenerative disease increases substantially. Preserving cognitive function has a lot to do with adequate blood flow, and therefore optimizing heart health protects our brains.
The science connecting the Heart and the Brain
The purpose of the cardiovascular system, which consists of the heart and the blood vessels, is to supply the organs of the body and with oxygen and nutrients.
The heart pumps the blood and the blood vessels transport it throughout the body. The brain is a highly vascular organ that gets 20-25% of the blood the heart pumps with every beat. The blood provides nutrients and oxygen that essentially feed brain cells and provide the energy for them to execute their functions.
When blood vessels are damaged or obstructed, specific ones are not affected, rather any blood vessel can be impacted- including those in the brain. Since the brain has a large number of blood vessels, when they become damaged, we start to see deterioration in brain tissue, compromised neuronal activity and an accelerated decline in memory, recall and thinking skills. The technical term for this is vascular cognitive impairment.
Vascular cognitive impairment is when brain function is compromised by cardiovascular factors. We also see vascular dementia, which is a term that is used to talk about dementia induced by several mini or silent strokes that happen on a regular basis. There is an argument that a high percent of dementia cases have a cardiovascular root.
Brain impairment exists on a spectrum. It ranges from hardly detectable to mild cognitive impairment to full on Alzheimer’s disease. More and more research links neurodegeneration leading to the full spectrum of cognitive impairment to high blood pressure, diabetes and unmanaged blood sugar, high cholesterol and damaged blood vessels.
Although the branch of science, neurocardiology has been around since the 1980’s, the idea that cardiac dysfunction is related to the gradual loss of cognitive function was not a concept that was widely accepted until recently. As we learn more and science advances, the connection between the heart and the brain has become indisputable.
Here is what we do know:
- Having uncontrolled high blood pressure in midlife is linked to higher risk for dementia later in life
- High blood sugar causes inflammation and injury in blood vessels resulting in higher risk for dementia
- The brains of individual’s with Alzheimer’s have reduced blood flow and often show significant levels of vascular damage
- High blood pressure negatively impacts the white matter in the brain. White matter signals communication between brain cells
- Obesity causes several tissues in the brain to shrink
- Adequate blood flow in the brain is key for clearing out proteins, that when accumulated can lead to cognitive impairment
What is Good for the Heart is Good for the Brain
What’s being shown in the literature is that it is possible to delay onset, manage existing cognitive impairments and even prevent them for occurring through reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors. The good news is, cardiovascular disease risk factors are more often than not, modifiable.This means we can implement dietary and lifestyle habits to reduce them.
Of course, there are brain specific nutrients that can facilitate brain health as well- however, it is important to set foundations of health first. When it comes to brain health, its foundations lay in a healthy, robust and functioning cardiovascular system.
Moral? Controlling cardiovascular risk factors is a helpful approach to lifelong brain health.
Modifying Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors for Brain Health
Regular exercise improves cardiovascular health through many pathways:
- Increases mitochondrial health (important for the brain as well)!
- Strengthens blood vessels
- Prompts the muscle to release anti-inflammatory compounds that mitigate damage to blood vessels
- Modulates cholesterol and blood sugar
When it comes to exercise, effective exercise involves breaking a sweat and increasing heart rate. Our top tip for incorporating consistent exercise into your life is to find something you enjoy!
A heart healthy diet is the foundation for a healthy brain. There are several factors to take into consideration, however there are two main principles to follow to keep blood vessels healthy and blood flow adequate.
- Remove seeds oils from the diet and replace them with healthy oils such as butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, tallow or olive oil. Seed oils are inflammatory and they attack both blood vessels and brain cells.
- Reduce sugar and simple carbohydrates. These cause blood sugar spikes which damage blood vessels obstructing flow to organs, including the brain.
Supplements are a great way to offset damage to the body and can be used an insurance policy against the harmful insults that we’re exposed too. Our three favorites for setting the foundation for a healthy heart, and therefore brain are….
A blend of CoQ10- a nutrient found abundantly in heart tissue (that decreases with age) and the precursors to nitric oxide which dilates blood vessels, improving blood flow is an incredible ally to increase circulation and help manage blood pressure.
One of the most comprehensive heart health formulas on the market, Heart Health Plus has 23 nutrients that work synergistically to address the root cause of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and artery dysfunction.
Vitamin C is a crucial nutrient when it comes to heart (and brain) health. It is protective. against atherosclerosis and helps to keep the arteries fluid and flexible. Lypo-Spheric® vitamin C not only provides a therapeutic dose of heart healthy vitamin C but 1000mg of essential phospholipids that have cardiac benefits as well!
Reduced blood flow to the brain, blood vessel inflammation and inhibition of communication between brain cells are characteristics of cognitive impairment. All of these characteristics are largely influenced and governed by the health of the cardiovascular system. Therefore, nurturing and supporting the heart innately has positive effects on the brain and cognition!
Author: Lisa Kowalyk CNP, B.Kin