Having a healthy heart can help preserve brain processing and cognitive function over time, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Researchers looked at whether meeting certain markers of a healthy heart—including not smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, being physically active, having a good diet and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check—had an impact on people’s cognitive abilities.
In the study, more than 1,000 men and women over age 40 had brain tests that assessed their memory and brain processing abilities, like how fast they could do a focus-intensive task. Six years later, the people were tested again. The researchers found that having more of the healthy heart factors was linked to better brain processing years later. It was also associated with less decline in functions like memory and executive functions like time management and focus.
“Achieving these ideal factors is really important not just for cardiovascular health but also for brain health,” says study author Hannah Gardener, an epidemiologist at University of Miami. “Some people may be more motivated by preserving their cognitive health. So I think it’s important to emphasize that striving to achieve ideal levels on these seven factors may also help preserve cognitive health later in life.”
But you don’t have to be perfect, Gardener says none of the people in the study achieved the targets for all six of the health factors, suggesting that even improvements in some areas, if not all, can benefit the brain. “People shouldn’t feel discouraged if one or two feels out of reach,” she says.