If you want to keep your brain strong enough to resist Alzheimer’s disease and fight back against other memory-robbing illnesses, you need to strengthen one muscle in particular that the brain depends on: your heart.
When we think of building strong muscles, we don’t often think in terms of the heart. We should.
Research shows that when you keep the heart at full capacity, your intellectual abilities have a much better chance of staying strong.
And these studies also demonstrate that measurements of this muscle’s power directly correlate with your brain power.
I’m sure I don’t have to remind you about how important your heart health is to keeping you alive. Heart problems kill a remarkably large number of people – more than 600,000 Americans a year, which is more than 10,000 every week.
In spite of huge strides in treatment, heart failure remains the #1 cause of death. And if you’re lucky and a weak heart doesn’t put you six feet under, you’re still not entirely out of the woods, because it may compromise your brain.
Tests at Vanderbilt University now reveal that when your heart muscle weakens even slightly, less blood travels to the temporal lobes of the brain.
And the temporal lobes – parts of the brain located in your temples which are linked to your language capacity – are most often the first brain areas where Alzheimer’s destruction begins.
Of course, it’s long been known that blood flow is vital to keep the brain functioning properly. Although the brain only represents about two percent of your body weight, it demands 12 percent of the blood flow from the heart.
Small Heart Change Can Presage Big Brain Loss
But what has surprised the Vanderbilt researchers is how a very, very subtle change in heart muscle function can begin to cause a deterioration in thinking abilities and provide an early sign of long-term brain problems.
In tests of more than 300 people between the ages of 60 and 92, the scientists used a technique called cardiac magnetic resonance to tease out slight changes in the pumping action of the heart muscle. With this highly sensitive test they were able to uncover tiny contraction differences that don’t show up in more common medical measurements. They aren’t detected by the types of tests a cardiologist is likely to give you.
The Vanderbilt researchers measured what’s called global longitudinal strain – GLS – which indicates a particular type of contraction of the heart muscle. Even when heart function looks fine on less sensitive tests, they found that GLS changes coincided with the beginning of memory issues.
Although the brain seems to have effective ways to keep blood flowing through its vessels even when the heart muscle struggles, the studies show that when the GLS slips, the brain suffers.
The researchers suggested several possible reasons:1
- Less blood means that brain cells can’t form as many of the proteins necessary to create the extra neuron connections (synapses) necessary for learning and memory.
- The reduced blood flow causes problems with the blood-brain barrier, allowing toxins to move from the blood into brain cells, damaging and killing off neurons.
- The toxins coming into brain cells are particularly destructive to the hippocampus, the part of the temporal lobes that acts as the brain’s memory and language center.
Good news: We can make use of these findings about the heart muscle and the brain.
If your brain health depends on your heart health, then this opens up an obvious avenue for lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. It means that incorporating heart-healthy lifestyle practices into your daily routine pays off in a better, stronger brain.
As Angela Jefferson, the director of the Vanderbilt Memory & Alzheimer’s Center, puts it, “A very encouraging aspect of our findings is that heart health is a modifiable risk. You may not be able to change your genetics or family history, but you can engage in a heart healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise at any point in your lifetime.”
So, yes, you may get tired of hearing about keeping your cardiovascular system healthy – the advice to get more exercise such as daily walks, and tips on eating more fruits and vegetables. But it’s advice we all should take to heart, because you’ll never get tired of waking up every morning with a crystal clear memory.