The health choices you make today affect how your brain will function as you age, regardless of whether you are 30, 40 or 50. Eating well, being physically active and managing your blood pressure are all important in helping keep your brain healthy as well as reducing your risk for stroke and heart disease.

There are relatively simple actions that can be taken to keep your brain healthy and possibly even delay or avoid dementia. The American Heart Association recommends “Life’s Simple 7” to improve heart and brain health. The “Simple 7” initiative includes non-smoking, healthy weight, physical activity, healthy diet and healthy levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.

Blood pressure

Blood pressure is a strong predictor of brain health, and high blood pressure is a significant risk factor for stroke. Understanding the numbers is the first step in controlling any blood pressure issues. Blood pressures of less than 120/80 are considered within the NORMAL range. Anyone who falls in this category should stick with heart healthy habits like regular exercise and a diet full of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

An ELEVATED blood pressure reading range falls between 120 to 129 systolic and greater than 80 diastolic. Patients with elevated readings are likely to develop high blood pressure unless steps are taken to improve their condition. It is important to work with your primary care physician to get your blood pressure under control.

Smoking

Many people are aware that smoking is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but smoking and tobacco use is also linked to mental decline and brain function. A study published in Molecular Psychiatry indicated that heavy smokers have a lower brain function. The study found smoking damages a part of the brain causing thinning in a crucial area where important thought processes such as memory, language and perception occur. This area of the brain does normally thin with age, but heavy smoking appears to speed up the process and leads to the lower brain function.

Weight loss

Losing unnecessary pounds means reducing the burden on the heart, lungs and blood vessels. It reduces strain on the blood vessels, increases blood flow to the brain and boosts overall brain function. Losing weight will also lower your blood pressure and help you feel better.

BMI (Body Mass Index) compares weight to height to give an approximation of total body fat. The total body fat is what increases the risk of diseases, which are related to being overweight. BMI can be determined by the use of a BMI chart that can be found online. Type “BMI chart” into any online search engine to locate a simple, easy-to-use BMI chart. Discuss with your primary care physician what a healthy BMI range would be for you.

Cholesterol

When there is too much cholesterol in your blood, you are at major risk for heart disease and stroke. Untreated high cholesterol over time can cause thickening of the artery walls and affect the blood supply to the brain. This type of vascular disease is a risk factor for development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Blood sugar

High blood sugar encourages the growth of plaque in the arteries and increases the risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke. A diabetic with hypoglycemia, a common complication of diabetes caused by low glucose levels in the blood, can lead to a loss of energy for brian function and is linked to poor attention.

Making good food choices, committing to regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight will assist in keeping blood sugar under control.

Diet

High quality foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals nourish the brain. A variety of heart-healthy foods will help keep you living at your best. A healthy diet should include lots of fruits and vegetables, fat-free and low-fat dairy and fish with omega-3 fatty acids and only a minimum of carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes, rice or sweets. Make sure to watch out for products high in sodium and food or beverages with added sugar.

Exercise

Exercising affects the brain in many ways. It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen in the brain. Exercise improves blood flow and also reduces the odds of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes, changing the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking, as well as improving mood, general well-being and sleep.

If you can’t find 30 minutes a day to exercise, try taking the stairs rather than the elevator or walking a short distance rather than driving a few blocks to your next destination. Moderate exercise for 20 to 30 minutes three to five days a week is optimal for maintaining top physical heart and brain health.

If you are over age 45 and have two or more of the risk factors – family history of heart disease, smoking, obesity, high cholesterol or blood pressure and a sedentary lifestyle – consult a physician before starting exercise.

Dr. Roland Skinner is a board certified neurologist with McLeod Neurological Associates. He specializes in neuromuscular disorders, nerve conduction studies and migraine management. He also sees a broad range of neurologic disorders including Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and seizures. He is accepting new patients by physician referral.