Happy National Chocolate Overs Month! You probably expect our focus to be heart-based. It’s that and so much more. We’ll even discuss chocolate, since this is National Chocolate Lovers Month.
A variety of sources are reporting on the link between heart and brain health. In fact, in 2019 the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)-funded Global Council on Brain Health, comprised of scientists, health care professionals, and policy experts, confirmed the direct connection and concluded that it is never too late to manage your cardiovascular risk factors to keep your mind focused and sharp as you grow older.
That’s not surprising, according to Jeff D. Williamson, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine: “The brain is one of the most vascular organs in the body – it has an even longer highway of blood vessels than the heart. And so it makes perfect sense that part of brain health is vascular health.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) explains the connection fairly simply. Every part of your body, including your brain, receives blood that the heart pumps through vessels. When blood vessels are unhealthy and damaged, there can be serious consequences.
- Heart attack – plaque buildup or a blood clot blocks blood flow to the heart.
- Stroke, also known as a “brain attack” – a clot or plaque blocks a blood vessel in the brain, or a blood vessel in the brain bursts, killing brain tissue, which can lead to memory loss and disability.
- Vascular dementia – small silent strokes or “mini strokes” occur, leading to memory loss, personality changes, and slowed thinking.
The evidence about the heart-brain connection is so compelling that a six- million-dollar research competition is being launched in March 2021 in Canada. The Heart-Brain Connection IMPACT Award is the result of a partnership between Brain Canada and Heart & Stroke that brings experts from different backgrounds – heart, stroke, and brain health researchers; engineers; sociologists; data scientists; and industrial engineers – together to consider heart and brain diseases simultaneously, with the goal of improving health outcomes for Canadians, one of whom dies every five minutes from heart disease, stroke, or vascular cognitive impairment.
In 2017, and closer to home, Dr. Rebecca Gottesman, Johns Hopkins University professor of neurology and epidemiology, led a study that determined people with heart disease risks, including high blood pressure, smoking, or diabetes, during middle age (45-64 years old) are more likely to have dementia when they are older. In a separate study, Dr. Gottesman examined amyloid, or protein pieces that form plaque in the brain and are believed to be a main cause of Alzheimer’s disease. People with heart risks were more likely to accumulate these protein pieces in the brain as they aged.
The American Heart Association (AHA) offers an interactive online tool called My Life Check to help people assess and track their heart health and better understand their risk of heart disease and stroke. AHA defines seven risk factors — Life’s Simple 7 — that people can improve to help achieve ideal cardiovascular health.
- Manage blood pressure
- Control cholesterol
- Reduce blood sugar
- Get active
- Eat better
- Lose weight
- Stop smoking
Dr. Gottesman’s research indicates that middle age may be a “critical window” for risk factors affecting the onset of dementia or that the cumulative effects of high blood pressure, diabetes, overweight, and smoking are not seen until middle age because “some of this damage can take decades to occur.” For that reason, if you are a smoker, the sooner you quit, the better.
In addition to quitting smoking, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends other protective health habits to lower the risk of dementia. They mirror those that promote heart health.
- Regular physical activity – any activity, for at least 150 minutes per week, is the number-one evidence-based action you can take.
- Eating a plant-based diet, high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and seafood.
- Avoiding inflammatory foods like processed grains (white flour and rice), added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats like butter and fatty meat.
- Minimize alcohol use, especially if cognitive concerns already exist.
Other measures that have been shown to protect cognition include getting enough good sleep, positive relationships, and social engagement.
The Alzheimer’s Association’s 10 Ways to Love Your Brain adds to this advice:
- “Hit the books,” because formal education at any life stage helps reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
- “Heads up!” (wear a seat belt, use a bicycle helmet, take steps to avoid falls), because avoiding brain injury can decrease your dementia risk.
- “Take care of your mental health,” because depression has been linked to an increased risk for cognitive decline.
- “Stump yourself,” because challenging the mind with games, puzzles, and artistic endeavors may have short- and long-term brain benefits.
As there is no solid evidence demonstrating their efficacy, the WHO does not recommend vitamins or supplements to promote brain health.
But now we’ll turn to chocolate, as promised! ? The Cleveland Clinic reports that enjoying moderate portions (one ounce) of minimally processed dark chocolate, without extra ingredients that add fat and calories, a few times per week may help protect your cardiovascular system.
Cocoa beans are rich in flavonoids, which have antioxidant powers and other potential positive influences on vascular health, “such as lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.” Other flavonoid-rich foods include apples, grapes and red wine, tea, onions, cranberries, tomatoes, and broccoli.
Bottom line, treating your heart lovingly seriously benefits your brain too!
In February 2021, Panhandle Home Health urges you to remember this: No matter your current health challenges or family disease history, now is the best time to begin (or continue) the healthy lifestyle changes that do (and will) make a difference in how well you feel and think. Take it to heart, and keep it in mind.