Powered by the heart, the cardiovascular system is responsible for pumping blood around the body and transporting oxygen and nutrients to and from cells – including in the brain.

Keeping the heart healthy is a great way to keep the body healthy. It directly reduces the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure.

Ongoing research into cardiovascular health is regularly finding that keeping the heart healthy is a great way to keep the mind healthy as well.

Last week, Medical News Today reported on a study that linked poor health and lifestyle factors with memory complaints. Now, another study has been published that links mental impairment with poor cardiovascular health.

The research, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, examined 17,761 individuals aged 45 and above, with normal mental functioning at the commencement of the study. Their mental functioning was then evaluated after a 4-year period.

Mental functioning was assessed by separately testing verbal learning, memory and fluency, using lists of words and asking the participant to name as many different animals as possible within a time limit.

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Moderate exercise such as brisk walking can be beneficial for your brain.

Cardiovascular health was also assessed by classifying each heart health factor as either poor, intermediate or ideal. The seven factors to maintaining a healthy heart, referred to as the American Heart Association (AHA) “Life’s Simple 7” are as follows:

  • Getting active
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Eating better
  • Managing blood pressure
  • Losing weight
  • Reducing blood sugar
  • Stopping smoking.

When assessing the participants’ cardiovascular health, the researchers took into account differences in age, education, race and sex.

The study found that the participants with poor cardiovascular health were more likely to develop some form of mental impairment. In particular, mental impairment was found in:

  • 4.6% of participants with the worst cardiovascular health scores
  • 2.7% of participants with intermediate cardiovascular health scores
  • 2.6% of participants with the best cardiovascular health scores.

This trend was apparent regardless of the gender, geographic region, pre-existing cardiovascular conditions and race of the participants.

The researchers did note higher cardiovascular scores were more prevalent in men, participants with higher education, higher income and those without pre-existing cardiovascular conditions.

Lead investigator Evan L. Thacker, Ph.D., an assistant professor and chronic disease epidemiologist at Brigham Young University Department of Health Science, in Provo, UT, is positive about their findings:

Even when ideal cardiovascular health is not achieved, intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels for better cognitive function.

This is an encouraging message because intermediate cardiovascular health is a more realistic target for many individuals than ideal cardiovascular health.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that only 1 in 5 adults in the US are getting the recommended amount of physical exercise: at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as walking, or 1 hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity such as jogging, or a combination of both.

The guidelines also recommend that adults do muscle-strengthening activities (including sit-ups and pull-ups) involving all muscle groups on 2 or more days per week.

But when modern life seems too hectic to accomplish this amount of regular exercise, it is heartening to know that a difference can be made without reaching the gold standard. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) say that people gain some health benefits from as little as 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.

Dr. Ralph Sacco, chief of neurology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and past president of the AHA, advises in another AHA article that we should be considering our cardiovascular health and the impact it can have on our minds from an early age:

Most of the time, like heart disease, it takes years of uncontrolled, unhealthy habits to wreak havoc on your brain, so it’s important to think about healthy habits as early as childhood and maintain them through adulthood and middle age.”

The NHLBI have a guide to physical activity that can help with improving cardiovascular health.