Illustration: Chris Gash

Why a heart-healthy lifestyle can do amazing things for your head.

Research has shown that developing heart disease may increase the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia, and a 2013 review published in the journal Clinical Epidemiology notes a link between ischemic heart disease (the kind caused by restricted blood flow to your heart) and cognitive impairment.

When people hear about heart disease, they tend to focus on the four-chambered organ itself. Indeed, a compromised heart is bad news for the brain, which depends on blood-borne oxygen and nutrients to stay healthy. The less successfully the heart pumps blood, the greater the chance that neurons will die or become dysfunctional, and brain function will suffer.

But it's important to keep in mind that the heart is part of an extensive network of blood vessels—arteries, veins, and capillaries—that circulate blood throughout the body. People diagnosed with heart disease usually have damaged arteries that have been hardened and narrowed by plaque buildup (atherosclerosis). And such damage in one part of the body indicates a risk for damage in other areas—like inside your brain. There, stiffness in even the tiniest vessels can reduce the flow of blood through your cognitive command center. Over time, this can lead to cognitive decline and an increased risk for dementia.

This seems like a good time to point out that an estimated 44 million women in the U.S. are affected by cardiovascular disease, and some of the same risk factors that lead to heart disease and stroke can also contribute to dementia, Alzheimer's, memory loss, and cognitive dysfunction. So it's a no-brainer to start following this advice...

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Don't smoke. Reduce your blood sugar. Manage your blood pressure.

Brain Bonus: It's all about the vessels: Smoking releases harmful chemicals that wear down blood vessel walls. Diabetes is also linked to damage of the vessel walls. And high blood pressure puts undue strain on vessels and can encourage plaque buildup.

Know Your Numbers: Blood pressure is a strong predictor of brain health. About 85 million Americans have high blood pressure, yet nearly 20 percent don't realize it.

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Stay active.

Brain Bonus: Regular moderate to vigorous physical activity strengthens your heart muscle so it can efficiently pump blood. It helps your blood vessels stay strong and clear while promoting the formation of new vessels and allowing them to deliver more oxygen to your body and brain and carry away waste.

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Control your cholesterol.

Brain Bonus: High levels of bad cholesterol can cause plaque buildup in your blood vessels, leading to blockages that may prevent blood from reaching parts of the brain. Schedule a screening to find out your levels and talk to your doctor about a strategy to bring your good and bad cholesterol into balance. In addition to lifestyle changes, your plan could involve cholesterol-lowering medication like statins. Research suggests that when used long-term, they could have a protective effect on memory and cognition, the extent of which may vary by type of statin and the patient's gender and ethnicity—ask your doc what's right for you. Here's to many more mentally robust years in your future.
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.