Want to Protect Your Brain? Start With Your Heart

Want to Protect Your Brain? Start With Your Heart

In February, we are surrounded by hearts. They’re everywhere—in the grocery store, shopping malls and email inboxes. You may also hear more about heart health, because February is  American Heart Month. Taking steps to strengthen your heart yields a bonus—you’ll be protecting your brain as well.

It turns out that heart and brain health are inexorably linked, according to a new Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) report on brain health and nutrition.

With every beat, the heart pumps 20 to 25 percent of blood to the brain. That blood carries food and oxygen to brain cells to help them function normally. An unhealthy heart system can wreak havoc on your brain. High blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes all damage the arteries that carry oxygen to vital organs, including the brain, says Lawrence Appel, M.D., director of the Welch Center for Prevention at  Johns Hopkins University and a GCBH panel member for the recent nutrition report.

“Damage to those vessels occurs gradually over decades, actually a lifetime,” Appel says. “Once there is damage to blood vessels, then damage to the heart and brain occur.” In addition to damage to the arteries, higher levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar probably directly damage brain and heart tissues as well, he says.

So how can we protect our hearts and  brains? Keep blood pressure and blood sugar under control, maintain a healthy weight and keep cholesterol low.

Considering this advice, it’s not surprising that the new report from the GCBH recommends a heart-healthy diet to help keep your brain strong.  The expert panel recommends a diet high in vegetables, fruits, fish and healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, nuts and olive oil. It discourages eating processed foods, fried foods and unhealthy fats, such as transfats and butter. Appel and colleagues published a study in November 2017 in the Journal of American Cardiology that found one of the diets detailed in the report—the DASH diet—was as effective as medication for some adults with high blood pressure. Find out more details about heart healthy/brain healthy diets on page 7 and 8 of the report.

Need more motivation? A new AARP survey of more than 2,000 men and women age 40 and over found that the more fruits and vegetables people ate, the better they reported their brain health and mental well being. A full 90 percent of those surveyed said they would eat a healthy diet if they knew it would reduce their risk of cognitive decline, heart disease or diabetes. According to the experts on the Global Council nutrition panel, including Appel, a heart-healthy/brain-healthy diet does just that.

So next time you see those heart-shaped candy boxes or Valentine’s cards in the store, think about protecting your heart and your brain.

Betsy Agnvall is a health editor and writer. She’s fascinated by research that helps us understand how to live our lives to the fullest – keeping mind and body strong and sharp. In addition to working with AARP media, she previously worked as a freelance writer for The Washington Post, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Safety and Health magazine and other publications.



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New Report Highlights Healthiest Foods for Your Brain

New Report Highlights Healthiest Foods for Your Brain

As the executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), I am always on the lookout for brain-healthy foods. I scan grocery aisles for chocolate bars with more than 70 percent cocoa, feel that I’m stimulating my brain when I down my morning coffee and even feel virtuous when drinking a glass or two of red wine. Turns out all my assumptions have been wrong.

The GCBH recently released a major report on how nutrition affects the brain. Brain Food: GCBH Recommendations on Nourishing Your Brain Health details how eating a healthy diet can strengthen your brain and reduce dementia risk.

When I attended the September 2017 meeting of GCBH experts in Baltimore, Maryland, I found to my surprise that although there are some studies that find brain benefits from coffee, chocolate and red wine, there isn’t enough reliable scientific evidence to recommend these foods to help keep your brain healthy. (Darn it!) Instead, the international group of experts recommended a heart-healthy diet with plenty of fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy fats and limited amounts of red meat, fried food and processed food. Rather than red wine and chocolate, the standouts were berries and leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale. Although there was some disagreement among the group, it was fascinating to see that experts from Greece, Italy, China, Israel and the United States generally agreed on the type of diet that would benefit aging brains. The group strongly agreed, for example, that brain health and heart health are closely connected. They said many foods that keep your cardiovascular system healthy also help keep the brain healthy.

The group discussed the foods and nutrition that many of us wonder about when it comes to our diets including gluten, grains, fats, dairy—and, yes, chocolate and wine. They examined the evidence for brain health for diets from the Mediterranean, Scandinavia and Japan, as well as the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) developed by epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris and her colleagues at Rush University in Chicago. (Check out pages 7 and 8 of the report to learn more about each of these diets.) The diet that lost out was the Western diet. It seems the typical Western diet that’s high in salt, sugar and saturated fats can wreak havoc on both your heart and your brain. The experts detailed some foods that you should eat regularly, some that you should include in your diet and others that you should limit.

Graphic from pg. 4 of Brain Food: GCBH Recommendations on Nourishing Your Brain Health

“The group agreed that the evidence points to green, leafy vegetables, fish, nuts, fruits and other healthy foods as helping foster good brain health. And we also agreed that fried foods, foods high in salt and processed foods are probably not good for our brains,” said Morris, a GCBH governance committee member who attended the September meeting in Baltimore.

Eating a brain-healthy diet does make a difference in preserving memory and thinking skills as we age. The 2017 AARP Brain Health and Nutrition Survey of more than 2,000 Americans over age 40  found that adults who eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables report healthier brains and better mental well-being than those who don’t eat those healthy foods. And the more fruits and veggies they ate, the better their brain health and mental well-being scores. Seems that I may need to get out of the chocolate aisle and into the produce section.

To find out more about how different foods protect—and harm—your brain, check out the full report and recommendations here. And we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Sarah Lenz Lock is Senior Vice President for Policy in AARP’s Policy, Research and International Affairs (PRI) where she helps position AARP as a thought leader addressing the major issues facing older Americans. She leads AARP’s policy initiatives on brain health and care for people living with dementia, including serving as the Executive Director of the Global Council on Brain Health, an independent collaborative of scientists, doctors and policy experts convened by AARP to provide trusted information on brain health.

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