By Susan Grotenhuis, Brain Fitness Facilitator at Asbury Methodist Village
“I urge the people of the United States to give heed to the nationwide problem of the heart and blood-vessel diseases, and to support the programs required to bring about its solution.”
These sobering words written over 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson were part of the original 1964 proclamation declaring February as American Heart Month. Despite the many scientific advances made since then, cardiovascular disease remains a major threat, topping the list as the number one cause of American deaths.
Although President Johnson was calling the nation to focus on heart health he was also unwittingly drawing attention to brain health. There exists an intimate relationship between the heart and the brain and the common denominator is blood. Oxygen and glucose are delivered to the brain through blood, which is pumped by the heart and transported through the vascular system. Roughly 100,000 miles of blood vessels exist in the brain alone to accomplish this vital task!
When the vascular system is compromised due to weakened walls or blocked vessels, brain cells ultimately suffer. Vascular dementia is caused by a reduced supply of oxygen to the brain. Sometimes referred to as vascular cognitive impairment (VCI), it is the second leading type of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and many believe its diagnosis is under-reported. Symptoms of VCI include difficulty thinking, planning and reasoning. Unlike Alzheimer’s, people with VCI may or may not suffer memory loss. As the disease progresses it becomes more challenging for the individual to function independently.
The risk factors for VCI share many of the same risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as arteriosclerosis—a hardening of the arteries, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar or diabetes. Smokers are at a much higher risk for developing VCI as are people who have experienced a stroke or a number of mini-strokes called transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). Individuals with depression may also be at an increased risk for VCI.
So let’s embrace President Johnson’s advice and commit to improving cardiovascular health. Here are six steps, well within your control, which will get your heart and brain healthy.
Watch your blood pressure.
Hypertension is referred to as the silent killer because there are no real symptoms. See a doctor and know your blood pressure numbers. Anything higher than 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic) is reason for concern. Simply getting on medication that lowers your blood pressure could save your mental health in the future. It’s worth the effort!
Control your cholesterol
Avoid dangerous plaque build-up which clogs and narrows arteries by keeping an eye on cholesterol levels. Get your blood tested yearly and consult with your doctor on ways to reduce potentially high levels. Ask to see your lipid profile so you can become better acquainted with your blood.
Aerobic exercise keeps the heart healthy and maintains proper blood flow throughout the body. The operative word in this step is “regular.” Start small, find something you can manage and stick with it. Aim for 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise at least three times a week.
Eat a heart-healthy diet (it improves brain health too!)
There are entire books dedicated to a heart-healthy diet that provide great recipes and serve as a helpful resource. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables and stick with whole grains such as farro and quinoa. Get lots of lean protein and avoid red meat. If you don’t enjoy spending time in the kitchen check out your local store for healthy prepared foods. Do your best to keep your weight down too.
Easy on the salt and sugar
Salt will harden your arteries in a hurry so limit your sodium intake. Stay away from prepared foods and avoid eating out. Make a commitment to eat more meals at home. Increased blood sugar levels will damage blood vessels too and put you at risk for type 2 diabetes. Reduce consumption of sugary foods and replace sweet drinks with water.
Two or more alcoholic drinks a day will sharply increase your risk for stroke. Limit alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day. Your best choice is red wine which contains resveratrol and is believed to benefit the heart and brain.
Celebrate American Heart Month by making some real changes so you can love and live long!