Healthy habits for healthy brains

Happy middle aged couple skiing
(Jordan Siemens/Stone, Getty Images)

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle isn’t just good for your heart. It also helps improve brain health.

That’s because some of the same risk factors for cardiovascular disease are closely associated with brain health. Blood vessel problems, called vascular disease, and their risk factors are often seen in dementia patients.

Scientists are finding similarities between sudden cognitive impairment and loss of physical function after a stroke and the slower, progressive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Stroke, when a blood vessel carrying oxygen to the brain is blocked by a clot or bursts, is the No. 2 killer worldwide and No. 5 in the United States and a leading cause of disability.

Small injuries to the brain can occur in different ways over time, building on one another, and ultimately acting like “a little wildfire that can’t be contained,” said Dr. Lee Schwamm, a neurologist and professor at Harvard Medical School. “Dementia is like a stroke in slow motion.”

Being able to pay attention, receive and recognize information, learn and remember, solve problems and make decisions, support mobility, and regulate emotions are all part of having healthy brain, according to a 2017 American Heart Association/American Stroke Association presidential advisory. A healthy brain also increases your chances of a good quality of life as you age.

Stroke and cognitive decline aren’t completely preventable but committing to a heart- and brain- healthy lifestyle may lower your risks.

The AHA/ASA advisory recognized a list of behaviors called Life’s Simple 7® as an effective approach to heart and brain wellness. They are: Get active, control cholesterol, eat better, manage blood pressure, lose weight, reduce blood sugar, and stop smoking.

“It’s not sexy. It’s planning and discipline and habit,” Schwamm said.

The importance of exercise cannot be overstated, said Schwamm, who is executive vice chair of neurology and director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, who tries to help his patients begin to view exercise as a gift, not a chore.

Just like paying bills, getting dressed for work, or getting children off to school, a commitment to physical activity is important to find time for every day.  

Exercise doesn’t have to involve expensive gear or gym memberships. It can be as simple as brisk walking or jogging. And you can start out with short exercise sessions, Schwamm said, adding the main thing is to get physically active and not quit. “The point is not to climb Mount Everest on your first day.”

Schwamm said many people wrongly believe they can keep living a fruitful life if they have their mental faculties even if they are physically impaired, he said. “The two are inextricably linked.”

Brain health can also be considered in a larger context to include emotional well-being and happiness. Maintaining social interactions with others, experts say, is one of the best ways to keep yourself happy and your brain active and healthy.


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