New research adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that keeping your heart fit may help your mind stay sharp as well.
In the study, seniors who met more of seven goals for heart-healthy living showed faster thinking speeds initially and less decline in memory and thinking skills six years later.
“The results of our study highlight the need for patients and physicians to monitor and address heart health factors and strive for ideal levels, as these factors not only influence cardiovascular health but also brain health,” said lead researcher Hannah Gardener, an assistant scientist in neurology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
In the study, published in the March 16 issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association, Gardener and her colleagues followed more than 1,000 individuals who were an average age of 72. Roughly two-thirds were Hispanic, 19 percent were black and 16 percent were white.
The researchers evaluated the patients to see how closely they met the goals of Life’s Simple Seven, a template for heart-healthy living created by the American Heart Association.
The seven goals are to:
- Manage blood pressure: It should normally be less than 120/80 mm Hg.
- Control cholesterol levels: High cholesterol contributes to plaque, which can block arteries.
- Reduce blood sugar levels: High levels of blood sugar can damage the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves.
- Get active: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity — or an equal combination of both –each week.
- Eat better: Eat a variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups. Limit salt, sugar, saturated fat and trans fat.
- Lose weight: Maintaining a healthy weight helps reduce heart risks.
- Don’t smoke: Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
None of the study volunteers met all seven goals, and only 1 percent met six goals. Four percent met five of the goals, another 14 percent met four, 30 percent met three, 33 percent met two and 15 percent met only one. Three percent of the volunteers met none of the seven goals for heart-healthy living.
At the beginning of the investigation, participants were tested for memory, thinking and brain-processing speed. Brain-processing speed is how quickly a person performs a task that requires focused attention. After six years, 722 participants repeated these tests so researchers could measure any changes in thinking skills.
Gardener and her team reported that participants who met more heart-healthy goals had better brain-processing speed at the start of the study. This link was most apparent for certain lifestyle factors, including not smoking, being at a healthy weight and having ideal blood sugar levels.
At follow-up, scientists noted that meeting more heart-healthy goals was linked to less deterioration in brain processing speed, memory and executive function. Executive function involves focusing, organization, time management and other cognitive skills.
“The results suggest that vascular damage and metabolic processes may be important in cognitive performance and decline late in life,” Gardener said. However, the study did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between heart-healthy living and reduced loss of thinking skills.
More research is needed to determine if routine assessment and treatment of heart health factors may help older individuals maintain sharper minds, the investigators added.
One expert said the research helps to confirm the link between heart health and brain health.
“This new study provides important evidence that further supports that heart health and brain health go together,” said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The benefits of the heart health factors apply to all ages, and it is never too late to begin to make positive changes in lifestyle or make improvements in risk factors,” he added. “It is critical to maintain a healthy body weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”
Fonarow recommended that older adults might also want to increase levels of physical activity. “A good guide is to aim to get 10,000 steps in each day,” he advised.
Meeting the heart-healthy goals of Life’s Simple Seven may also help lower the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, according to the American Heart Association.
Find out more about the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple Seven.