FAQs about Brain Health

What is brain health?

A healthy brain, supported by adequate blood flow, is essential for living a longer and fuller life. Brain health enables thought, planned action and emotional connections that impact the daily lives and progress of individuals, families and communities. A healthy brain is able to:

  • pay attention receive and recognize input from our senses
  • learn and remember
  • communicate
  • solve problems and make decisions

  • support movement and regulate emotions

The advisory from the American Heart Association goes further in defining ideal brain health so that it can be measured, monitored and modified. This is important so that researchers and policy makers can identify whether we are making progress towards lessening the impact of dementia as life expectancy increases and the population ages.

This is the first American Heart Association advisory on measuring important factors supporting brain health. The authors recommend that ideal brain health be measured against the seven metrics – Life's Simple 7 – that were originally developed by the American Heart Association to define ideal cardiovascular health. Life's Simple 7 includes 4 ideal health behaviors and three ideal health factors:

  • nonsmoking physical activity at goal levels
  • healthy diet consistent with current guidelines weight:
  • body mass index <25 kg/m2)
  • untreated blood pressure <120/<80 mm Hg
  • untreated total cholesterol <200 mg/dL, and

  • fasting blood glucose <100 mg/dL)

Why is it important to measure brain health?

Being able to measure brain health will help policy makers plan for the future needs of the population.

Life expectancy is increasing in the United States, which experts believe will likely be associated with an increase in the prevalence of cognitive impairment and dementia. An aging population with multiple factors that do not support a healthy brain will produce an increased number of people with dementia. This will certainly create challenges for public health in planning for overall health and social services, housing and pensions for the elderly. This could be greatly mitigated by deploying more effective care for those at risk for cognitive impairment and dementia.

Why should I start thinking about brain health when I'm young?

Although you can't feel it developing, atherosclerosis, the slow narrowing of the arteries that underlies heart disease, stroke and dementia, can begin in childhood. The American Heart Association urges people to follow Life's Simple 7 for their lifetime, to keep their arteries, hearts and brains as healthy as possible.

What is cognitive decline?

Cognitive decline or dementia is a deficit in the ability to think, remember, pay attention, communicate, solve problems, make decisions or regulate emotions. Common causes of dementia are strokes, vascular dementia, Alzheimer's disease and head injuries.

Many people think of cognitive decline as a disease of the elderly, but it can begin developing in younger age groups. And some individuals maintain excellent brain function well into older age. That's why it's so important to start taking care of the brain as early as possible.

How does stroke cause dementia?

The brain is a complex organ that needs adequate blood flow to function properly. Strokes are caused by blockages in the arteries that lead to the brain or by a blood vessel in the brain rupturing. If the blood flow to the part of the brain that was “serviced” by the blocked or ruptured artery is not quickly restored, that section of the brain will be damaged. The degree or type of dementia from stroke is dependent on what areas of the brain are affected.

What is vascular dementia? Most heart attacks, heart failure and strokes are caused by arteries that are narrowed or clogged by a slow buildup of plaque, a substance composed of cholesterol and other substances. The narrowed arteries reduce the flow of blood. This process is called atherosclerosis.

What are the costs of dementia?

In the United States, Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are among the most expensive diseases to treat, with direct care expenses greater than those for cancer and equal to heart disease.

In 2013, direct payments for health care, long-term care and hospice care for dementia were $203 billion, and among chronic diseases, dementia is the largest single contributor to disability and to the need for longer-term care among older persons.

Direct care costs for cognitive impairment represent only part of the total financial costs. In 2011, more than 15 million Americans spent an average of 21.9 hours per week caring for family members with dementia, and the estimated monetary cost may be as high as $215 billion annually. This does not take into account the stress and related factors placed on caregivers and other family members.

How many people have dementia?

In 2010, it was estimated that 3.9 million people in the United States have dementia, and that number is expected to grow as the population ages.

What is Alzheimer's and how can our 7 Simple Steps prevent it? Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes parts of the brain to shrink (atrophy). It is associated with some genetic factors, but the exact cause of the disease is still not understood.

A large body of peer-reviewed, published scientific research shows that physical activity, management of vascular risk factors, such as controlling blood pressure, eating a healthy diet and not starting or stopping smoking can help prevent Alzheimer's disease – and all of these are addressed by Life's Simple 7. The American Heart Association also agrees that other psychosocial measures suggested by the Alzheimer's Association, such as staying socially engaged and undertaking challenging activities as additional ways to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and maintain a healthy brain.

What if I'm not young? Following Life's Simple 7 at any age will benefit your heart and brain. Even if you have atherosclerosis, following the steps will slow the development of the disease.