6 simple strategies to keep your brain and your heart strong

A healthy heart is good for your brain. Here’s why — and what to do.

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It’s all connected: Your healthy heart and your healthy brain go together. When your ticker is in good shape, you’re less likely to have chronic illnesses like diabetes. And your risk for heart disease — like high blood pressure or even a heart attack — goes way down.

Another big plus: With a healthy heart, you’ve got more energy. That means more get-up-and-go for a happier, healthier, more active life.

The heart-brain link

One of the biggest benefits of a healthy heart: a healthy brain. It all begins with the blood that flows between your heart and your brain. If your heart is pumping well, your brain gets the fuel it needs to do its job. But if not? That can spell trouble.

Why? Heart health affects brain health in several ways. “Common heart conditions allow blood clots to form in your heart,” says Mitchell S. V. Elkind, M.D. He’s the chief science officer for the American Heart Association (AHA). “Those clots can travel to your brain and cause strokes.” In 2020, strokes (sometimes known as “brain attacks”) caused about 1 out of every 21 deaths in the United States, according to the AHA.

Heart conditions can also lower the amount of blood that flows to your brain. That’s called ischemia. It can damage your ability to think clearly. It can even cause brain injuries. It’s simple, Dr. Elkind says: You need enough blood to keep your brain cells from shrinking and dying.

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How can heart problems affect your brain’s health?

When your heart’s not in top shape, your thinking slows down, your memory slips, and it’s tougher to concentrate. In fact, cognitive decline — that’s when you have trouble thinking clearly — affects up to half of all people with heart failure. (Heart failure means your heart isn’t pumping as well as it should be.)

And the same risk factors for heart disease can put your brain health at risk too. For example, hypertension, or high blood pressure, can lead to a heart attack if it’s untreated. But hypertension in midlife is also one of the biggest factors for late-life cognitive decline.

“People with high blood pressure have five times the risk of late-life cognitive decline and double the risk of dementia,” says Dr. Elkind. While researchers haven’t been able to find a clear link, recent research posits that high blood pressure, especially in middle-aged and older adults, can damage regions of the brain important for memory and cognitive function.

Other problems that can impact your heart can impact your brain too. Take obesity and smoking. They can raise your risk of dementia by as much as 40%. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is even related to mental health concerns. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Chronic stress
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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6 ways to strengthen your brain (and your heart)

Despite all the worrisome connections, there are also lots of things you can do to make your heart and your brain stronger. In a recent study, researchers looked at more than 6,000 older adults. What they found was amazing: the healthier their hearts, the lower their risk of dementia.

What worked for those people can work for you too. Here are six things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease and keep your brain sharp.

1. Manage your blood pressure. Get your blood pressure checked regularly. Hypertension is a leading cause of stroke and heart disease, so checking your numbers is important. (A healthy blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg.) Ask your doctor to recommend a device for you — and ask them to show you how to use it.

2. Eat a healthy diet. That means plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. Add in some seafood too, especially salmon — it’s rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Cut back on alcohol, sweet drinks, and salty foods. Talk to your provider about the best eating plan. Or they can refer you to a dietitian or nutritionist about setting up a longer-term plan.

3. Watch your blood sugar. More than 37 million Americans have diabetes, according to the CDC. It happens when the levels of sugar in your blood are too high. Your brain needs sugar to do its job, but too much can damage your nerves and your blood vessels. That can cause problems with your memory and make it difficult to learn.

It can even mess with your mood. So if you have diabetes, it’s super important to keep your blood sugar at your target levels. Follow your diabetes plan and talk to your doctor about how to stay healthy.

4. Stop smoking. Smoking damages your blood vessels. It even makes your blood more likely to clot. That can lead to heart disease and stroke. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the AHA.

And it can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Smoking actually changes the structure of your brain. Turns out, people who smoke have a thinner cortex — that’s the part of your brain that’s involved with memory and language.

5. Move more. You already know that exercise is good for your heart. It can keep diabetes and high blood pressure in check and even prevent some kinds of cancer. But it’s good for your brain too. Regular exercise lowers your risk of depression and anxiety. It can also help you sleep better, and it may decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s.

How much physical activity do you need? “We recommend at least 150 minutes weekly of moderate to vigorous exercise,” says Dr. Elkind. “That’s about 30 minutes, 5 times a week. Even brisk walking has been shown to be effective for preserving brain health.”

6. Pick up a pastime. Learn to knit. Take up woodworking. Grow a garden. Join a board game club or a hiking group. Find something you love to do — and do it, especially with other people.

“Social activities, like visiting with friends or participating in clubs, or having hobbies that engage your mind, also seem to have benefits in preserving brain health and preventing cognitive decline,” says Dr. Elkind.

A recent study looked at more than 700 people over 10 years. Researchers found that those who tried more new activities were in better mental shape than those who didn’t. “All these activities keep the blood vessels functioning normally, which improves blood flow,” says Dr. Elkind. They also help to minimize unhealthy inflammation and blood clotting that can damage the heart and brain over time.

Another fun activity that can boost brain health? Get in some brain fitness time. Try BrainHQ, a brain-training program designed by leading scientists that rewires the brain to help you think faster, focus better, and remember more. And it may be included at no cost with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility today.

Additional sources
Heart disease and mental health: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Dementia study: JAMA Network
Diabetes statistic: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Stroke statistic: American Heart Association
Activity study: The Journals of Gerontology