Since time immemorial, popular culture has been pitting the heart and brain against each other. The heart is seen as the instinct-driven, emotional organ. Meanwhile, the brain is seen as the logical, intellect-driven organ. And, this differentiation has led us to treat disorders of the two organs separately. However, recent research states that making healthy choices for the heart might have neurological benefits as well. Here’s how the disorders of the heart and brain are connected.
The Heart-Brain Connection
1. Common Risk Factors
An unhealthy lifestyle doesn’t just contribute to heart disorders. Recent research indicates that risk factors that lead to stroke and heart diseases contribute to problems in brain function. Specifically, heart disorders are linked to dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease-related dementia, and dementia as a result of the disease.
These risk factors include the following:
- Lack of physical exercise
- Hypertension and hypotension
- Diabetes mellitus
- High cholesterol
These risk factors are especially dangerous if they manifest in midlife.1
2. Changes In Blood Pressure
The connection between heart disorders and cognitive function primarily lies in blood pressure. Unhealthy behavior and conditions such as the one listed above can lead to the narrowing of blood vessels. This causes a reduction in blood flow to the brain as well as hardening of the arteries in the heart and brain.
Lack of blood flow to the brain causes it to malfunction. This, in turn, leads to cognitive problems related to thinking and memory. It might also lead to difficulty getting from one place to another and deterioration in cognitive function.
If the aforementioned blood flow to the brain is blocked abruptly, you might have a stroke. Besides this, high blood pressure is the most significant cause of stroke.2
3. Mutually Beneficial Treatments
Most people believe there’s no way to treat disorders of the brain. But, research indicates that controlling the risk factors of heart disorder might slow the progression of these disorders.3
Studies have also found links between the autonomous nervous system (ANS), controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, and ventricular arrhythmias.
ANS controls the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. Ventricular arrhythmia involves the lower chambers of the heart beating very quickly, causing chest pain, fainting, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Treatment centered on the ANS like electrical neuromodulation, vagal stimulation, denervation, and music might control ventricular arrhythmia. However, there are ways by which you can take your heart and brain health into your hands.4
Ways To Prevent Heart And Brain Disorders
Certain lifestyle changes can help you kill two birds with one stone. Here are a few such changes that you should embrace, especially if you’re at risk of heart disorders.
- Quit smoking: Most people smoke to deal with stress. Unfortunately, smoking neither relieves stress nor does any favors to your body. Research indicates that smoking is bad for your respiratory and heart health. This includes secondhand smoke.
- Exercise regularly: It’s never a bad time to go ahead and get that gym membership you’ve been considering. Regular exercise keeps your heart healthy and has positive effects on cognition.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Closely related to the previous point, carrying extra weight around the belly leads to strains in the heart. It also increases the risk of diabetes. If you are obese, a good starting point would be to lose 5–10% of your body weight. This will help you regulate your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Eat clean: Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats), and protein are ideal for anyone who’s at risk of heart disorders. Cut out processed foods, red meat, trans fat, saturated fat, and refined grains from your diet. This will help you keep your weight in check, prevent clogging of arteries, and manage your blood sugar.
- Monitor alcohol consumption: Alcohol intake should be limited to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
The key to leading a healthy lifestyle is to set goals, stay motivated, and track progress so as to push your limits. Involve people in your journey, head to the gym with a friend or take group classes.5
Often surgery for heart disorders might lead to cognitive impairment. So, do consult a doctor regarding any protective measures you’d need to take.6 Although both heart and brain disorders come with aging, you don’t have to let them get the better of you. All you need to do is lead a healthy lifestyle. And, a few changes to your daily routine are a small price to pay for the benefits they offer.
|↑1||Justin, B. Ng, Michele Turek, and Antoine M. Hakim. “Heart disease as a risk factor for dementia.” Clinical epidemiology 5 (2013): 135.|
|↑2, ↑3||Protect Your Heart, Protect Your Brain. American Heart Association.|
|↑4||Daemen, M. J. A. P. “The heart and the brain: an intimate and underestimated relation.” Netherlands Heart Journal 21, no. 2 (2013): 53.|
|↑5||These five habits can save your heart — heres how. Harvard Health Publishing.|
|↑6||Bruggemans, E. F. “Cognitive dysfunction after cardiac surgery: Pathophysiological mechanisms and preventive strategies.” Netherlands Heart Journal 21, no. 2 (2013): 70-73.|