Few would argue that the health of your heart and brain are connected. For one, studies have linked cardiovascular disease with a greater risk of dementia. Often, those with heart disease, especially those with clogged arteries, will also experience reduced cognitive function and anatomical changes in the brain like shrinkage. But it was only recently, that researchers found a similar correlation in people with healthy hearts. It has to do with a person’s cardiac index—how much blood, relative to a person’s size, is pumped by the heart.
Researchers from the Framingham Offspring Cohort, part of Framingham Heart Study, evaluated data from 1,504 participants. Those studied were aged 34 to 84 with an average age of 61. There were slightly more women (54 percent) than men in the cohort. Researchers compared MRIs of the heart and brain, neuropsychological tests, and lab reports. What they found was a direct correlation between cardiac index and brain volume.
Brain volume is one indicator of brain health. Having more brain volume is associated with having better brain health. Brain volume decreases somewhat as part of the normal aging process. However, a significant decrease in brain volume—a structural change known as brain atrophy—is generally seen in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Just how much did blood flow impact brain aging in the Framingham Offspring Cohort study? Lead researcher Angela Jefferson, associate professor of neurology at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Boston University School of Medicine, said, “Participants with a low cardiac index or a low normal cardiac index had smaller brains, equivalent to about two years of brain aging compared to those with high cardiac index.”
One of the most interesting findings pertained to participants with a low-normal cardiac index. Although otherwise healthy—none of the participants had cardiovascular disease—they also had decreased brain volumes. Dr. Jefferson and other experts in neurology were surprised by this outcome. They expected the brain to be only marginally affected.
It makes perfect sense that your circulation, including the heart’s output, would be linked to your brain’s health. After all, the brain relies on the nutrients and oxygen it receives from your blood. If your heart isn’t pumping enough blood, or if your body’s circulatory system isn’t healthy and functioning optimally, chances are your brain won’t get the nourishment it needs to be healthy.
Protecting Your Heart and Brain
Cardiac index and brain volume are not markers typically looked at when assessing someone’s risk for dementia. Cholesterol, weight, and blood pressure are the usual data points for both heart disease and brain health. Further research is needed to determine whether cardiac index is a marker worth monitoring. Its connection to dementia in this study certainly is food for thought.
As one doctor said when reviewing the findings of this study, blood pressure medications lower cardiac index. If more studies show the correlation between low cardiac index and a higher risk for dementia, prescribing blood pressure medications may not be as common in the future.
I don’t suggest you rush to your doctor to find out what your cardiac index is or whether your brain has shrunk! Supporting your heart and brain holistically is always the best place to start.
Eat a low glycemic diet with lots of nutrients. Make sure to keep your sugar intake down, since this is known to cause inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is the root cause of many degenerative diseases, including heart disease. Eat lots of whole foods, instead, making sure to get five to ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Don’t smoke, and only drink in moderation. Anything else puts too much stress on the cardiovascular system.
Take high-quality, pharmaceutical grade vitamin/mineral supplements and plenty of essential fatty acids. This protects the cells throughout the body. Omega-3 essential fatty acids have been shown to support brain and heart health in countless studies.
Keep an upbeat attitude. Everyone has troubles. We all have to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. But don’t let life harden your heart! There’s a reason for the expression “Get it off your chest.” Let go of anger and resentment, and move towards joy. Embrace new ideas and meet new people. This will all help to improve your circulation.
Exercise. Studies show that 30 minutes of moderate exercise, like walking, three times a week is all you need to confer a wealth of benefits to your body.
Get plenty of sleep. I can’t emphasize this enough! Sleep helps reduce emotional and physical stress, whereas being “sleep macho” (only allowing yourself a few hours of sleep) puts stress on your entire body, including your heart. You’ll notice that your memory is worse when you’re tired, too.
I hope you will follow these sensible recommendations. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you reap considerable benefits!
One final thing. I learned a phrase from the Go Red for Women campaign some years ago that I want all women (and men) to adopt. It’s: Love your heart. I can’t think of anything better than love—giving and receiving—to keep your heart healthy and blood circulating freely.
1. Jefferson, A.L. Cardiac Index Is Associated With Brain Aging. The Framingham Heart Study, published online at Circulation: A Journal of the American Heart Association, Aug. 2010.
2. Jefferson, A.L. Cardiac output as a potential risk factor for abnormal brain aging Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2010;20(3):813-21.