The Heart Foundation Blog

Aerobic Exercise Can Improve an Aging Heart

April 6th, 2018

As we age, the muscles thicken in the left ventricle of our heart, and our heart stiffens and enlarges slightly. Our arteries become less flexible, and fatty deposits called plaques collect along the artery walls, slowing the blood flow from the heart. This aging progression, along with lifestyle choices, can increase your risk of heart disease. However, a new study has found that you can slow and even reverse this aging process.

Recently, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center conducted a study that investigated the interaction between exercise and aging, and explored the prospect that exercise could restore the heart’s elasticity in previously sedentary, late middle aged individuals.  The good news is the study found that exercising 4 – 5 times a week can actually reverse damage to aging hearts, even after a lifetime of inactivity. 

In the two year study, the UT Southwestern researchers monitored the hearts of 53 adults, ages 45 to 64, who were healthy, but who did not exercise and who spent most of their day sitting down. The participants in the study were divided into two groups: Half of the participants took part in a regime that included regular aerobic exercises. The regime involved one hour a week of high intensity aerobic exercise such as tennis, cycling, running, dancing or brisk walking, plus one 30 minute session consisting of a high intensity workout, two 30 minute sessions of moderate exercise such as swimming, and 1-2 sessions per week of strength training. The remaining participants were a control group and engaged in yoga and balance training three times a week and did no aerobic activity.

At the end of the two-year study, those who had exercised were not only more fit, their heart showed an 18% improvement in their maximum oxygen intake during exercise and their heart muscle was 25% less stiff, meaning that the heart could pump blood far more efficiently, thus reducing their risk for heart failure. The control group saw no change in their heart health.

While previous studies have shown a clear link between exercise and multiple health benefits, what was surprising to Dr. Benjamin Levine, senior author of the study, was how quickly heart health could be revived with the introduction of exercise, even later in life. “If the goal is to preserve youthful arteries and heart function,” Levine said, “then exercise four to five days a week is what it takes.”  Dr. Levine said the results were so ‘extraordinary’ that the regime should be ‘prescribed for life’ and become a daily habit, in the same way as tooth brushing is a daily habit. To reap the most benefit, the exercise regimen should begin by late middle age (before age 65), when the heart still has enough plasticity to repair itself. And the exercise needs to be performed four to five times a week. Two to three times a week was not enough to protect the heart from aging.

Again, the weekly regime includes one hour of high intensity aerobic exercise such as tennis, cycling, running, dancing or brisk walking, one 30 minute session consisting of a high intensity aerobic workout, two 30 minute sessions of moderate exercise such as swimming, and 1-2 sessions per week of strength training. Exercise has been shown to slow the aging process, but it works best in combination with other healthy lifestyle habits. Here are some other tips to keep your heart healthy as you age:

  • Avoid tobacco in all its forms.
  • Eat properly. Your diet should include lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and nonfat dairy products. Get about 15% of your calories from lean protein, such as fish and poultry. Cut back on salt, sugar and processed foods and reduce your consumption of saturated fat, trans-fats, and cholesterol. Keep your caloric consumption down and stay as lean as possible.
  • If you choose to drink, be responsible. For women, limit yourself to one drink a day, and for men, two drinks a day.
  • Keep your mind active and stimulated. Mental exercise is an important complement to physical exercise.
  • Build strong social networks. People are good medicine at any age.
  • Get regular medical care and monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol.

Exercise is beneficial regardless of the age at which it is started and can help you maintain cardiovascular fitness as well as mental and muscular fitness as you age.

 

 

References: 

Circulation Journal:
http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2018/01/03/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.030617
Harvard Health Publishing:
https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/an-exercise-prescription-for-couch-potatoes   
https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercise-and-aging-can-you-walk-away-from-father-time
Science Daily:
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180108090132.htm

The Health Benefits of Having a Dog

March 9th, 2018

There are emotional and physical benefits to having a dog. A dog is a source of pure, unconditional love. A dog can provide companionship and can connect you to the outside world. A dog can also keep your heart and body healthy. Exercising with your dog can help both you and your dog lose and maintain a healthy weight, and can build a strong digestive system, healthy bones and muscles, and better agility.

And the health advantages of a dog are not limited to people who have a dog at home. In the 1860s, Florence Nightingale found animal companionship was beneficial to her patients. Since then, dogs have been used in many capacities to help people recover from and manage illness, disability, and other conditions. Today, there are many animal-assisted therapy programs in prisons, schools, and hospitals that benefit many people.

  1. A dog can improve your heart health

According to the American Heart Association, a benefit of owning a dog can help lower your risk of heart disease, in large part because a dog needs to be walked. The physical activity of walking and playing with your dog contributes to better overall cardiovascular health and fewer heart attacks.

What’s more, dog owners who have suffered from a heart attack have better survival rates following the event. In a 2009 study conducted at the UCLA Medical Center, heart failure patients who came in contact with therapy dogs for 12 minutes a day demonstrated notably reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety.

  1. Dogs keep you fit and active

A dog may help put an end to the excuses people have for not exercising. When your dog wakes you up in the morning, you have little choice but to get up and go.

It is recommended that adults get about 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Only about 50 percent of Americans get that much exercise. Dog owners are much more likely to hit that goal, as dog owners walk briskly and more often. In a recent study, dog owners on average walked 22 minutes more per day compared to people who didn’t own a dog. Brisk walking can lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and other conditions. Regular dog walks can also improve your muscle tone, bone health, flexibility, and lung capacity.  And the more people walk, the more likely they will remain mobile into their 70s and 80s. Older adults who walk their dogs generally experience a lower body mass index, fewer limitations in daily living activities, and fewer doctor visits. Kids also benefit from a dog. Children can turn exercise into playtime with dog friendly activities such as playing tug-of-war, chase, or throwing a ball.

  1. Your dog can help you lose weight

Feeling like you should lose some weight? A dog could be the answer. Research has repeatedly found that daily dog walks help you lose weight, since they force you to into moderate physical activity for 10, 20, and even 30 minutes at a time.

In a 2010 study discovered public housing residents who walked “loaner” dogs five times a week lost an average of 14.4 pounds over the course of a year. The best part: Participants considered it a responsibility to the dog, rather than exercise. (”They need us to walk them.”)

  1. A dog can prevent kid’s allergies

It used to be thought that dogs contributed to children’s allergies. However, recent research conducted at the University of Wisconsin Department of Pediatrics found the opposite to be true. Exposure to dogs in infancy – especially around the time of birth – can actually influence children’s immune development and reduce the likelihood of certain allergic diseases.

  1. Dogs keep you social

A healthy mind depends on engagement with others, which can enhance both physical and emotional health. Taking a dog for a walk gets you out of the house and can increase your social interactions. A dog provides a connection with other dog owners and with complete strangers. Next time you stop to talk to another person about their dog or your dog, you are improving your mental health.

  1. 6. Dogs are stress reducers

Even brief interactions with a dog can lower anxiety and blood pressure, and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, two neurochemicals that play big roles in calm and well-being. People performing stressful tasks do better when there’s a dog around. Studies show dogs ease tension both at the office and between married couples.

  1. A dog can help with depression

Animal companionship can be an important, even life-saving component of self-care for people experiencing depression and other mood disorders. A pet can remind you that you’re not alone. A dog gives you unconditional love, which can be extraordinarily soothing when feeling isolated. A dog also requires a regular schedule. Studies show that being needed, having to feed, walk and care for a dog, is a powerful way to anchor a person if they are experiencing the effects of depression, anxiety, or stress.

  1. Dogs add meaning and purpose to life as we age

As we grow older, especially after we retire, it can be difficult to find daily structure and meaning. Dogs take care of that – they have to fed and walked, forcing you to get up and continue to do things. Walking and a feeding schedule are not likely the only factors that explain why pet ownership is linked to longevity. The companionship of a dog can help prevent loneliness and isolation, which is key in staving off cognitive decline and disease.

The down side of dog ownership among the elderly is the possibility of a fall. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), just over 86,000 falls per year are caused by pets and 88% of those falls are caused by tripping over a dog. Falls can be cataclysmic health events for people who are older and can result in serious injury (broken hips, etc.) and long hospital stays. If you’re looking to adopt, consider mobility issues, and make sure to take steps to reduce the dangers of falls.

  1. The importance of service dogs

Trained service dogs can benefit people with disabilities by increasing mobility and promoting independence. Service dogs can also be trained to alert diabetic people to dangerous changes in blood sugar levels, can sniff out certain cancers, and can warn epileptics of an impending seizure. The Foundation for Service Dog Support defines a service dog as a dog that has been rigorously trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with disabilities or an illness. A trained service dog is different than an emotional support dog, therapy dog or other working dogs who under ADA law, do not qualify as service dogs.

A dog can make you happier, calmer, and feel more loved, all of which lead to overall better health. But owning a dog requires a lot of care by a dedicated owner. Owning a pet is a privilege and should result in a mutually beneficial relationship.

 

Sources:

American Heart Association:

http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/Owning-a-Pet-May-Protect-You-from-Heart-Disease_UCM_453586_Article.jsp#.WnuBXa6nF9M

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html

NPR:

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/12/532625213/dog-owners-walk-22-minutes-more-per-day-and-yes-it-counts-as-exercise  

The Foundation for Service Dog Support, Inc.:

http://servicedogsupport.org/dogs/

University of Wisconsin:

https://www.pediatrics.wisc.edu/featured-stories/allergies


Heart Disease in Women – A Heart Attack Survivor’s Story

February 22nd, 2018

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year. Emily Holcraft was misdiagnosed while suffering from a heart attack. Read about her experience, and her strength to question and to persevere.

My name is Emily Holcraft and I would like to share my heart attack survivor story.  I am 46 years old, a mother of 4 children and have been married for 23 amazing years.  I have always maintained a healthy diet, am a triathlete and have no family history of heart disease.  As I was training for my first triathlon I began feeling extremely fatigued.  Thinking it was due to my training I decided to rest a day.  I then began to experience pain to my left arm.  I dismissed it as possibly having pulled my bicep muscle.  But, it didn’t go away.  I also began feeling very short of breath but felt it was related to an asthma flare up.  I didn’t feel sick at all, just exhausted and frustrated.  I kept trying to train but scaled my workouts way back. Over the course of 3 days it came to a point where I could barely swim 1 length of the pool. That morning it took everything I had to get myself OUT of the pool.  Somehow I showered and managed to get to work.  My co-worker took one look at me and knew something wasn’t right.  I proceeded to tell her what had transpired over the last 3 days.  She immediately asked me if I had a heart history.  I said no, forgetting that I had a PFO closure in 2008 after having experienced a stroke.  However, I didn’t feel that was relevant.  She checked my blood pressure which measured 128/80.  That was a high reading considering that I usually run 90/50.  She insisted that I go to the ER.  The pain in my arm was relentless and I was beginning to experience jaw pain. I, the stubborn person that I am, decided to drive myself to the hospital.  I was examined at the ER.  My EKG was normal and they dismissed my symptoms with a diagnosis of having a “panic attack.”  My biggest concern at that time was my arm.  The pain was ridiculous. Despite my persistence in asking for an ultrasound of my arm to make sure I didn’t have a blood clot, they sent me home with a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication.  4 hours later I collapsed on my living room floor.  I was ambulanced back to the ER.  Blood cultures were drawn which revealed I had had a heart attack.  I was immediately taken in for a cardiac catheterization which showed 4 blockages 2 of which were greater than 90%.  While the doctor was trying to place the stents the guide wire dissected my left main artery which led to emergency open heart surgery for a quadruple bypass. That was obviously not a normal occurrence.  I woke up 2 days later in Cardiac ICU not even knowing that I had surgery let alone OPEN HEART surgery.  I remember asking my surgeon as he stood at the end of my bed, “does this mean I can’t do my triathlon next month?”  Can you imagine?!  I actually asked him that!  Obviously he kindly remarked, “Not this year honey.”  I was 41 at the time.  After several months of Cardiac Rehab and numerous setbacks I finally regained my pre-heart attack fitness.  And I am happy to say that I crossed that finish line I had intended to cross 2 years prior.  I have since done 11 triathlons and a Century bike ride (100miles!).  I am on several heart medications but am happy to say that I am alive and doing very well!  I keep up with my Cardiology appointments and have learned to listen carefully when my body is trying to tell me something. So far so good!  A takeaway for your readers?  It can happen to anyone!  Again, I was 41 years old, excellent diet, an athlete with no family history of heart disease.  Silent killer?  I would say yes. 

 Emily M. Holcroft RN, BSN

 

Heart attack symptoms in women are often different from those in men.  Following are some of the heart attack symptoms for women:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Unusual fatigue

To reduce your chances of getting heart disease it’s important to:

  • Quit or don’t start smoking.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight and obese raises your risk of heart disease.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and lean meats. Avoid saturated or trans-fat, added sugars, and high amounts of salt.
  • Know your blood pressure. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can result in heart disease. High blood pressure has no symptoms so it’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should be tested for diabetes. Diabetes raises your chances of heart disease.
  • Have your healthcare provider check your cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Limit alcohol intake to one drink a day.
  • Lower your stress level and find healthy ways to cope with stress.

 

 

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:                                                                                                                   https://www.cdc.gov/features/wearred/index.html

Mayo Clinic:                                                                                                                                                                                              https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167


Childhood Obesity

February 9th, 2018

Children who are obese are above the normal weight for their age and height. Today, about one in three American kids and teens are overweight or obese; nearly triple the rate in 1963. Among children today, obesity is causing a broad range of health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and elevated blood cholesterol levels. The excess weight at young ages has been linked to higher and earlier death rates in adulthood. There are also psychological effects: Obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. Many obese children become obese adults, especially if one or both parents are obese.

If you’re worried that your child is putting on too much weight, talk to his or her doctor and start a program that will treat and prevent obesity, and will help your child live a long, healthy life.

Complications from Childhood Obesity:

Physical Problems:
Type 2 diabetes. This chronic condition affects the way your child’s body uses sugar (glucose). Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle increase the risk of type 2 diabetes in children.
High cholesterol and high blood pressure. Lack of exercise and a poor diet can cause your child to develop one or both of these conditions. These factors can contribute to the buildup of plaques in the arteries. These plaques can cause arteries to narrow and harden, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke later in life.
Asthma. Children who are overweight or obese might be more likely to have asthma.
Sleep disorders. Obstructive sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder in which a child’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This disorder causes fatty deposits to build up in the liver. NAFLD can lead to scarring and liver damage.

Social and Emotional Problems:
Low self-esteem and being bullied. Children often tease or bully their overweight peers, who suffer a loss of self-esteem and an increased risk of depression as a result.
Behavior and learning problems. Overweight children tend to have more anxiety and poorer social skills than normal weight children do. These problems might lead children who are overweight to act out and disrupt their classrooms at one extreme, or to withdraw socially at the other.
Depression. In some children who are overweight, low self-esteem can create overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, which can lead to depression.

Causes of Childhood Obesity:

Lifestyle issues – too little activity and too many calories from food and drinks – are the main culprits of childhood obesity in the US.

Diet. Regularly eating high-calorie foods, such as fast foods, candy, desserts and baked goods, and vending machine snacks, can easily cause your child to gain weight. Sugary drinks, including fruit juices, are a huge contributor to childhood obesity.
Lack of exercise. Children who spend too much time in sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing video games, don’t exercise much and are more likely to gain weight because they don’t burn as many calories.
Family factors. Genetics can also contribute to childhood obesity. If your child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be more likely to put on weight. This is especially true in an environment where high-calorie foods are always available and physical activity isn’t encouraged.
Psychological factors. Personal, parental and family stress can increase a child’s risk of obesity. Some children overeat to cope with problems, or to deal with emotions, or to fight boredom. Their parents may have similar tendencies.
Socioeconomic factors. People in some communities have limited resources and limited access to supermarkets. As a result, they may opt for fast foods and convenience foods that don’t spoil quickly, such as frozen meals, crackers and cookies. In addition, children who live in lower income neighborhoods might not have access to a safe place for physical activity.

Prevention:

Whether your child is at risk of becoming overweight or is currently at a healthy weight, you can take measures to get or keep things on the right track. Good habits established in childhood help adolescents maintain healthy weights despite the hormonal changes, rapid growth and social influences that often lead to overeating. And active children are more likely to become fit adults.

Make it a family issue. One of the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity is to improve the eating and exercise habits of your entire family. Talking about the health and habits of the entire family together as a team will create a supportive environment and keep individual children from feeling targeted.


Encourage healthy eating habits.
Provide plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain products.
Include low-fat or non-fat milk or dairy products.
Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils and beans for protein.
Serve reasonably sized portions for your child’s age.
Encourage your family to drink lots of water.
Reduce sugar, sodium and saturated fat and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Limit eating out, especially at fast-food restaurants.
Eat meals as a family as often as possible.
Help your kids understand the benefits of being physically active. A critical part of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, especially for children, is physical activity. It burns calories, strengthens bones and muscles, and helps children sleep well at night and stay alert during the day.
Find activities your child likes, and emphasize activity, not exercise. Children and teens should be moderately to vigorously active for at least an hour a day. Your child’s activity doesn’t have to be a structured exercise program – if your child likes to climb, head for the nearest neighborhood jungle gym or climbing wall. If your child likes to read, then walk or bike to the neighborhood library for a book. The object is to get him or her moving. Free-play activities, such as bike riding, hide-and-seek, tag, dancing, swimming, or jump-rope are fun and are great for burning calories and improving fitness.


Reduce sedentary time. Although quiet time for reading and homework is fine, limit “screen time” (TV, video games, Internet, smartphones) to no more than two hours a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 18 months should avoid all screen time, except for video-chatting with family and friends. For older preschoolers, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming.
Schedule yearly doctor visits. Be sure your child sees the doctor for well-child checkups at least once a year. During this visit, your child’s doctor will measure your child’s history of growth and development, your family’s weight-for-height history, where your child lands on the growth charts, and their Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI provides a guideline of weight in relation to height, and is the accepted measure of overweight and obesity. An increase in your child’s BMI or in his or her percentile rank over one year is a possible sign that your child is at risk of becoming overweight.

Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps protect your child’s health now and in the future.

 

Resources:

The American Heart Association:
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyKids/ChildhoodObesity/What-is-childhood-obesity_UCM_304347_Article.jsp#.Wd6RXVtSx9M

Mayo Clinic:
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-obesity/symptoms-causes/syc-20354827


The Risks of a Midlife Weight Gain

October 20th, 2017

Midlife weight gain is common. In two large-scale studies of health professionals in the United States, 93,000 women were asked to recall their weight at age 18 and 25,000 men were asked to recall their weight at age 21. At age 55, 37 years later, the average weight gain for women was 28 pounds. For men, 34 years later, the average weight gain was 21 pounds.

For many adults, weight gain is slow and steady, and much of midlife weight gain resides as belly fat in the midsection (click here to learn more about belly fat).  Researchers have found that for every 11 pounds gained, the risk for chronic diseases and other health problems increases dramatically.  An extra 11 pounds increases the risk of high blood pressure and hypertension by 14 percent, and the risk of heart disease or stroke by 8 percent. The same weight gain has been linked to an astonishing 30 percent increase in the risk of diabetes! In addition, a midlife weight gain can lead to osteoarthritis, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and breathing problems, and some cancers (endometrial, breast, colon, kidney, gallbladder, and liver).

 

Why do so many people gain weight in midlife?

As you age, your body composition gradually shifts — the proportion of muscle decreases and the proportion of fat increases. This shift slows your metabolism, making it easier to gain weight. More and more food energy gets stored as body fat and fat stores are redistributed to the belly. Hormonal changes can also add about 2 to 5 pounds.  The rest of that extra weight is the result of overeating, poor lifestyle choices – such as not exercising enough – and stress.        

According to Dr. Frank Hu, a professor in the departments of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, “People don’t become obese overnight. On average, people gain about a half a pound to a pound per year, and once you cross the obesity threshold, it’s difficult to go back. If the dam is already open, the flood has already happened and it’s extremely difficult to rebuild the whole dam instead of repairing it.”

 

It’s never too late to start losing weight

Losing weight may seem like a daunting task, especially if you are older. It also becomes much harder to take weight off and keep it off the heavier you get. But, by targeting good lifestyle habits during midlife and beyond you can help prevent future health consequences. The following strategies may help you drop extra pounds and may help prevent further weight gains.

  • Consume foods high in fiber.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Avoid processed foods and sugary drinks.
  • Limit serving sizes.
  • Be physically active and exercise regularly.  A brisk 30 minute walk a day can make a difference! A committed walking or exercise partner can provide consistency and encouragement.

  • Self-monitor your weight. You may find it helpful to weigh yourself on a regular basis. If you see a few pounds creeping on, take the time to examine your lifestyle.  Ask yourself: Has my activity level changed? Am I eating more than usual? You may find it helpful to keep a food diary for a few days so you can track what you eat along with why you are eating it. For example, do you opt for fatty snacks while watching TV? Get into the habit of thinking about what it is you’re eating, before you actually eat it.               
  • Stress: Often we over-eat when we are emotionally stressed. Learn to relax and deal with stress in healthy ways, by exercising, meditating, or engrossing yourself in a hobby.

Successful weight loss at any stage of life requires dedication and permanent changes in diet and exercise habits. Commit to lifestyle changes and make your future a healthy one!

 

 

 

Sources:

U.S. National Library of Medicine:                                                        https://medlineplus.gov/news/fullstory_167272.html

Mayo Clinic:                                                                                                      https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/researchers-review-risks-recommendations-for-weight-gain-management-in-midlife-women/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:                              https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/prevention/index.html


Can a HEART HEALTHY lifestyle prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s?

September 29th, 2017

It is estimated that 1 in 6 women, and 1 in 10 men, who live past the age of 55 will develop dementia in their lifetime. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for up to 70% of the dementia in the elderly, and vascular dementia accounting for most other dementia cases in the elderly.

Experts agree that the vast majority of dementia or Alzheimer’s cases, like many other chronic conditions, are a result of multiple factors, including age, genetics, environment, and lifestyle. It is now thought that conditions that affect the heart, such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, can also increase the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s.

The connection between the heart and the brain:
Vascular (blood vessel) problems that include atherosclerosis (the buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries) and arteriosclerosis (the stiffening of arteries with age) are both well-known contributors to heart disease. Yet, these same processes can also damage brain function by interfering with the steady supply of oxygen-rich blood that nourishes brain cells. This means the brain is not getting a sufficient supply of blood over the long term. “An estimated one-third of all cases of dementia, including those identified as Alzheimer’s, can be attributed to vascular factors,” says Dr. Albert Hofman, chair of the department of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

High blood pressure, which is the leading cause of stroke, can also be linked to the progression of dementia. In a stroke, large portions of brain tissue die when a blood clot in a major brain artery abruptly halts the flow of blood. In addition to suffering immediate damage from a stroke, roughly one in three stroke survivors will eventually develop dementia.
High blood pressure can also cause more subtle injuries when tiny blockages occur in the small vessels deep within the brain. These silent strokes are 10 to 20 times more common than overt strokes. The microscopic damage they leave behind also raises the risk that dementia will emerge at a later date.

Healthy lifestyle choices can improve your overall health, your heart health, and possibly protect your brain:
A key step in maintaining your cognitive abilities is to reduce your major cardiovascular risks. This includes getting regular physical exercise, quitting smoking, managing blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. Of particular importance is keeping high blood pressure in check, especially in middle age.

1. Exercise: Regular physical exercise may directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow in the brain and may be beneficial in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

2. Healthy Diet: Research has long shown that a healthy diet is associated with lower levels of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. There is now some evidence that eating a heart healthy diet can also reduce the risk of developing problems with memory and thinking. Researchers have found that people who stuck to a Mediterranean-type diet reduced their risk for Alzheimer’s disease by 54%. But perhaps more importantly, researchers found that adults who followed the diet only part of the time still cut their risk of the disease by about 35%.

3. Stop Smoking: Smoking can cause heart disease and thus increase the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment caused by mini-strokes and hardening of the arteries. Smokers also have a high risk of insomnia and sleep apnea, both of which could theoretically increase the risk of dementia. Cigarettes and cigarette smoke contain more than 4,700 chemical compounds, including some that are highly toxic such as vinyl chloride, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and heavy metals. While scientists aren’t sure which of these toxins are responsible for the increased risk, they do understand that tobacco products can damage our brains. Studies have shown that people who smoke are at higher risk of developing all types of dementia and a much higher risk (up to 79%) for Alzheimer’s disease.

Staying on top of risk factors:                                                                         Can dementia or Alzheimer’s be prevented? It’s a question that continues to intrigue researchers and fuel new investigations.  It is currently thought that the best way to maintain good brain function and reduce your risk of dementia is to adapt a healthy lifestyle, including eating healthy foods, getting regular exercise, not smoking, managing your weight, and maintaining normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Harvard Health Publication/Harvard Medical School:                       https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heart-disease-and-brain-health-looking-at-the-links-2016110910582

Alzheimer’s Association:             http://www.alz.org/research/science/alzheimers_prevention_and_risk.asp

Alzheimer’s Society/UK:             https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/info/20010/risk_factors_and_prevention/149/mediterranean_diet

Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation:                                       https://www.alzdiscovery.org/cognitive-vitality/blog/your-brain-is-begging-you-stop-smoking

Institute for Dementia Research & Prevention, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University System:                                            http://idrp.pbrc.edu/faq.htm