by Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D.
“The heart is the chief feature of a functioning mind.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
The heart and the head are not always on the same page. But one thing is certain, when it comes to nourishing these two essential parts of you, what’s good for one is also good for the other.
You probably already know that you can support the health of your heart with lifestyle changes. Even if you are genetically susceptible, the lifestyle choices you make can turn on or off those genes, raising or lowering your inherent risk for heart disease. In short, even family history can be rewritten depending on how you choose to eat, move and live. (64-66)
What’s the Connection?
Everything known to be unhealthy for blood vessels and the heart is also linked to poor brain health. The culprits that raise heart disease risk, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, stiff arteries, inflammation and obesity, may also impact brain function. (61,62)
In contrast, every habit you adopt to lower the risk of heart disease helps to support positive brain health. For example, a study from the University of Miami compared cardiovascular health with cognitive function in more than 1,000 people. Results showed that those who had the highest scores on measures of heart health did the best on mental tests. They scored highest on processing information, memory and the ability to organize, manage time and control impulses, a set of skills known as “executive function.” (1)
A Hearty Diet for the Mind
To protect your brain, adopt a heart-healthy diet, preferably one that resembles the Mediterranean diet rich in fatty fish, colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil and nuts. This diet supports healthy arteries that supply blood, oxygen and nutrients to both the brain and heart, and helps clear fatty deposits from arteries to help keep blood pressure in check. (58-60,63)
One of the mainstays of this diet is the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA found in fatty fish, such as salmon and herring. The health benefits of consuming at least two servings a week of fatty fish has been known for decades. (17-21,38) The body cannot make these fats at optimal levels, so it holds true that as intake decreases, levels in the brain of these omega-3s also decrease. (2-15,56,57) The benefits of DHA and EPA to mood, cognition and learning are noted around the world in both men and women and throughout life, from infancy through the senior years. (22-37)
Eat the Rainbow
The heart pumps one-fifth of its blood to the brain, where billions of brain cells use 20 percent of the blood’s oxygen and fuel. Along with that oxygen comes oxygen fragments, called oxidants or free radicals. Left unchecked, the oxidative damage caused by this onslaught damages cells. The antioxidants in foods, such as vitamins C and E, protect both the arteries and the brain from damage. (39,40-42) For example, preliminary evidence suggests that vitamin E helps lower the risk for both heart disease and dementia. (43-47,56,57) Load at least half of every plate with a variety of antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables, and include vitamin E-rich nuts in the weekly diet.
On the days when you don’t eat perfectly, supplement. Make sure your multi-vitamin contains antioxidants, such as vitamin E. Supplement your multi-vitamin with DHA and EPA omega-3s. Rest assured that supplemental sources of these fats are just as effective at protecting your heart and brain as are the same fats found in fatty fish. (48-52)
Humans are not meant to be overweight. Excess body fat is associated with most aspects of aging and health conditions. For example, being overweight in the middle years significantly increases the risk for dementia down the road. The good news – the very diet that protects your brain and heart also helps to slim your waistline! (53-55)
Live It Up!
One cannot live by diet alone. To protect your heart and head, include exercise in the daily routine. Move at a level that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat, and you’ll stimulate growth of the hippocampus, the memory and learning center in your brain. You’ll also reduce many of the risk factors for heart disease. Then, sleep well, lower stress, and of course, don’t smoke! Adopt those habits and your brain and heart will repay you a thousand-fold!
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