When the brain doesn’t function as it should, it can lead to challenges with memory, movement, thoughts, and speech. Many people around the world know firsthand how devastating these brain health problems can be: dementia — a general term for an aging-related decline in cognitive abilities — currently affects 50 million people worldwide.
As heartbreaking as it is to watch an aging loved one lose their ability to remember, communicate, and process information, there is some good news. Researchers are learning more and more about dementia, and prioritizing heart health may lower a person’s risk of cognitive decline.
How the heart affects brain functionality
Dementia is a progressive, aging-related deterioration of cognitive function caused by a group of diseases. The two most common types are Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60-80% of all dementia cases, and vascular dementia, which accounts for about 10% of all dementia cases and is linked to strokes and other problems with blood flow to the brain.
The link between heart health and vascular dementia is well-established. Researchers have long known that damage to the arteries — blood vessels that transport oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body — can lead to strokes and the subsequent cognitive decline in vascular dementia.
And now, there’s increasing evidence that key risk factors for cardiovascular disease and strokes, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, can lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have also found that a high percentage of people with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease.
Protect your brain health in the long term by prioritizing a heart-healthy lifestyle today. Here are five actions that can help you prevent cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease.
1. Get moving, even for a short amount of time.
Not only will a physically active lifestyle lower your risk for heart disease, it can also benefit the brain. Research has found that people who are more physically active face a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Exercising for 30 to 60 minutes several days a week may increase the size of your hippocampus, the part of the brain linked to memory formation. If you’re in the beginning stages of planning a fitness routine, start by dividing your workout into smaller pieces. Two fifteen-minute walks in a day, or even a few bursts of jumping jacks, can help you reach your weekly target.
2. Stay on top of blood pressure screening — and limit your sodium intake.
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a leading risk factor for heart disease and can lead to a heart attack or stroke. It also may contribute to a person’s risk of cognitive decline — research has found that high blood pressure can negatively impact parts of the brain responsible for thinking and memory.
High blood pressure can be treated, but early detection is important. Many people don’t experience noticeable symptoms until the condition has progressed significantly. It’s important to get regular blood pressure tests, especially if you have a known heart condition or a family history of heart disease. Consult with your doctor about recommended testing frequency.
Eating less salt is a simple way to take care of both your heart and your brain, as high sodium intake can increase blood pressure. The American Heart Association suggests capping your sodium intake at 1,500 mg/day. Make it a habit to check nutrition labels while grocery shopping and opt for low-sodium options when possible.
3. Adopt healthy lifestyle habits to prevent or control diabetes.
If you are one of the millions of Americans living with type 2 diabetes, a disease in which the body struggles to convert sugar, or glucose, into energy, you may also face a greater risk for several forms of dementia. The high glucose levels in people with diabetes damage blood vessels throughout the body, which can increase a person’s risk of vascular dementia. There is also evidence that adults with type 2 diabetes — the most common form of diabetes — have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
If you have diabetes, it’s important to stay on top of your treatment plan and follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations for monitoring blood glucose.
And if you don’t have diabetes, it’s still important to discuss your diabetes risk with your doctor. An estimated 88 million adults in the U.S. have prediabetes, a condition in which blood sugar levels are higher than normal but still below the range for a diabetes diagnosis. Fortunately, prediabetes is reversible, and simple lifestyle changes can prevent it from progressing into type 2 diabetes.
4. Get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep deprivation affects you both mentally and physically. It is linked to health issues that can increase your risk for heart disease, including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, as well as dementia.
If you’ve struggled to get enough rest, you’re not alone. More than 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. say they get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. There are steps you can take to improve your sleep hygiene. Start by switching to decaf in the afternoons and evenings, avoiding late-night meals, and trying to wake up and wind down at consistent times.
5. Stay connected.
Having a strong social network and participating in activities with others can improve many areas of your health. Social isolation can increase an older person’s risk of dementia by about 50%, and loneliness has been linked to poor cardiovascular health.
Small acts of connection — from volunteering or joining a book club to catching up with friends virtually or in person — will lead to a more fulfilling life today and can help strengthen your cardiovascular and cognitive functioning for years to come.
To give your brain an extra boost, look for group activities that keep your mind moving, too. Challenging the mind with stimulating logic games, or by learning a new language or taking up a new hobby, can strengthen your brain in both the short and long term.
We’re here to help you prioritize heart health and cognitive health
At Alto, we’re committed to making it as simple as possible to stay on top of your medications for blood pressure, diabetes, or other conditions. We offer same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills in our app. And our team of pharmacists are always here to answer your questions by phone or in-app messaging, and will even remind you when your medications are due for a refill.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.