Keeping Heart in Shape May Keep Mind Sharp

Cardiovascular health decline may lead to decline in memory and learning ability

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) A healthy brain depends on a healthy heart. Good cardiovascular health may not only help prevent stroke and dementia, it also may play a part in maintaining memory and learning abilities.

To survive, brain cells rely on a constant supply of oxygen from the blood. Studies have shown that the better the heart and cardiovascular system is working, the better the brain may function.

New research gives further support to this heart-head connection. Researchers found that people with poor cardiovascular health were more likely to have learning and memory problems than those with excellent or even intermediary heart health.

"Maintain heart health to maintain a healthy brain."

Evan L. Thacker, PhD, an assistant professor and chronic disease epidemiologist at Brigham Young University Department of Health Science in Provo, Utah, led this investigation evaluating the brain health of 17,761 adults over the course of four years.

These study subjects, who were all 45 years old or older with normal cognitive function (related to conscious mental activities) and no history of stroke at the start of the study, had supplied health information for the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study.

At the beginning of this investigation, the researchers measured cardiovascular health of participants according to the American Heart Association Life's Simple 7 factors — smoking habits, diet, physical activity, body weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar.

Based on these factors, the researchers calculated a score for each patient, ranging from 0 for lowest cardiovascular health to 14 for highest cardiovascular health. Individuals who scored 0 to 6 points had low cardiovascular health; those with 7 to 8 points had intermediate cardiovascular health; and participants reaching 9 to 14 points had high cardiovascular health.

The study authors noted that men, individuals with higher educations and those with higher incomes tended to have higher cardiovascular health scores.

Four years after the study started, the researchers assessed mental function of each subject using a three-test measure of verbal learning, memory and fluency. Verbal fluency, for example, was gauged by having participants name as many animals as possible in a minute.

After taking into consideration differences in age, sex, race and education, the investigators found cognitive impairment in 4.6 percent of those with the lowest cardiovascular health scores, 2.7 percent of those in the intermediate group and 2.6 percent of those with highest cardiovascular health scores.

Dr. Thacker found the results to be encouraging because those maintaining even an intermediate level of cardiovascular health had cognitive scores similar to those with the best cardiovascular health.

He added that for many people, maintaining an intermediate level of heart health may be more realistic than reaching that ideal level of cardio health. 

Dr. Thacker told dailyRx News, “To maintain cardiovascular health, follow the American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 guidelines:”

  1. Don’t smoke.
  2. Eat a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables, fish, fiber-rich whole grains, low salt and low sugar.
  3. Get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.
  4. Maintain a healthy body weight, with body mass index (BMI) below 25.
  5. Maintain a healthy blood pressure level, below 120/80 mm Hg.
  6. Maintain a healthy blood cholesterol level, below 200 mg/dL.
  7. Maintain a healthy blood sugar level, below 100 mg/dL.

This study was published June 11 in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke helped support the study.

Review Date: 
June 11, 2014
Last Updated:
June 13, 2014