What’s Good for Your Heart Is Good for Your Brain

What’s Good for Your Heart Is Good for Your Brain

Keeping your heart as healthy as possible will likely help your mind. Carra Richling from Ornish Lifestyle Medicine will help you learn how your diet and lifestyle can affect your brain health.

New studies are showing that a heart-healthy lifestyle and plant-based approach to eating may reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, as well as heart disease.

A host of factors beyond genetics may play a role in the development and course of Alzheimer’s, including diet, lifestyle and environmental influences. Scientists are discovering that there is a relationship between cognitive decline and vascular conditions such as heart disease, and metabolic disease such as diabetes.

What is Alzheimers?
The prevalence of the disease is rising as the population ages. In 2016, an estimated 5.4 million people had Alzheimer’s. Every 6 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s, and one in three people over the age of 65 die from complications related to it, or other forms of dementia, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the world.

Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive disease where brain cells break down and die and, over time, the brain shrinks dramatically. This causes a steady decline in memory and nearly all mental function. There are two types of Alzheimer’s—early onset and late onset, and both types have a genetic component.

A build-up of protein deposits in the brain, known as plaques and tangles, is common in those affected. Oxidative stress, or free radical damage to our cells, contributes to the build up of this plaque.

The heart and head connection
Many people don’t realize that Alzheimer’s and heart disease are linked through the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene. The gene is involved in making a protein that helps carry cholesterol, and other types of fat, in the bloodstream. A form of APOE is the major known risk factor for both heart disease and late-onset Alzheimer’s.

Also, several conditions known to increase the risk for cardiovascular disease—such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol—also increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Autopsy studies show that as many as 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s also have cardiovascular disease, and yet most scientists agree that the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unclear. The general consensus is that it’s caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time.

One such factor, oxidative stress, occurs when the production of free radicals outweighs our body’s ability to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects. This oxidative stress and free radical damage to cells may initiate the development of Alzheimer’s, along with other chronic illnesses, such as heart and kidney disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Reducing your risk through diet and lifestyle
There’s still so much we need to learn about the prevention and risk for Alzheimer’s. A 2016 study found that meat consumption may increase the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, as well as type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

Researchers examined typical diets in 10 countries and their link to Alzheimer’s. They considered known dietary risk factors. The study concluded that the key dietary connection to Alzheimer’s appeared to be meat consumption, with eggs and high-fat dairy also contributing. So, it’s easy to see the importance of starting a plant-based approach to diet earlier in life to decrease the risk for developing these diseases later.

Additional research suggests that a heart-healthy, whole-food, plant-based approach may indeed help protect the brain. This approach limits sugar, saturated fats and cholesterol while focusing on a variety of whole grains, legumes and produce, all of which are packed with nutrients that have an abundance of antioxidants to help reduce inflammation.

Another 2016 study also found that if you include high amounts of refined sugars, salt, animal proteins and fats, and low amounts of fruit and vegetables in your diet, you are at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s.

Genes arent your fate
You are not your genes. Regardless of a genetic predisposition to acquire Alzheimer’s, genes are not your fate.The bottom line: Your lifestyle choices, including your diet, stress management, meditation, regular exercise, and love and support, may affect your likelihood to develop the disease.

Looking for other ways to live a healthier, happier life? Reverse heart disease and diabetes, lose weight and reduce your cancer risk with these tips from Dean Ornish.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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