Every year since 1963, each US president officially proclaims February to be “American Heart Month.” Its primary purpose is to promote awareness about heart disease and its prevention. But what does your heart health have to do with your brain? As it turns out, quite a lot!
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the US, but according to the Centers for Disease Control it is preventable and controllable.
Heart disease can be prevented by:
- Eating a healthy diet.
- Exercising regularly.
- Not smoking.
- Managing stress.
- Maintaining a normal weight.
- Managing underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Unless you are new to our site, this should sound very familiar to you! This closely echoes the advice for managing your brain health as well.
Heart Health = Brain Health
According to Dr. Ralph Sacco, a former president of the American Heart Association, risk factors for heart disease can lead to narrowing of the blood vessels. This in turn reduces blood flow to the brain contributing to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. If blood flow to the brain is abruptly blocked, it often leads to a stroke, a leading cause of severe, long-term disability.
Here is some more evidence that heart health, or lack of it, affects the brain:
- Studies have shown that people whose hearts pump less blood actually show signs of brain atrophy. This is true even in people with no obvious signs of heart disease.
- Patients who have good control of their blood pressure are less likely to develop dementia.
- People with the greatest blood flow from the heart have greater brain volume indicating a healthier brain.
- Untreated hypertension has been found to be more damaging to the brain than previously realized. People as young as 40 with high blood pressure show changes in brain structure associated with cognitive decline in the elderly.
- Consequences of high blood pressure include stroke, transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke), dementia, and mild cognitive impairment.
The Cholesterol Controversy
While there is much in common between mainstream heart health and our brain health advice, when it comes to the subject of cholesterol, we take a clearly different approach.
Your brain needs cholesterol and plenty of it. One quarter of your body’s cholesterol is found in your brain which is 60% fat (dry weight). It’s needed for every aspect of brain function — to build brain and nerve cells, and to enable cells to communicate with each other. A low cholesterol level has been linked to depression, suicide, and Alzheimer’s.
If you don’t eat enough, your body will divert cholesterol away from your endocrine system to use for brain function and repair, leading to hormone deficiencies.
But doctors don’t like to see high cholesterol levels and will usually put a patient on a low cholesterol diet and cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins. These drugs are known for causing serious memory loss and diabetes and are required to state so on their labels.
We’re not just talking “can’t find my glasses” memory loss. Some people have developed memory loss that’s so serious they don’t recognize their loved ones.
There is much evidence that high cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease and that your HDL and LDL measurements are pretty useless. You can learn more about what the greatest risk factors are for heart disease and why cholesterol isn’t the culprit it’s made out to be in Exposed: Why Cholesterol Doesn’t Cause Heart Disease.
The medical establishment has done a great job with making the public aware of heart health. The average man or woman on the street can probably converse quite comfortably about the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol! But we think it’s time for the public to become equally aware of the importance of brain health. Don’t you?
Here are several brain health-related awareness dates.
- March is Brain Injury Awareness Month
- March 12 – 18 is Brain Awareness Week
- May is Mental Health Month
- September 21 is Alzheimer’s Action Day
- September is World Alzheimer’s Month
- November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month
Please let us know if you know of any other awareness events that we can add to the list.
February Is American Heart Month at CDC.gov