It goes without saying that good heart health is beneficial in itself. But according to a new study, a healthy heart may also lead to a healthy brain, by protecting against age-related cognitive decline.

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Look after your heart and you may also be looking after your brain, according to researchers.

Led by Hannah Gardener, of the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami in Florida, the study found that older adults with better measures of cardiovascular health showed lower levels of cognitive decline around 6 years later, compared with older adults with poorer cardiovascular health measures.

The researchers publish their findings in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

As we age, certain areas of the brain shrink, causing some individuals to experience a decline in cognitive skills, including learning, memory, planning and other complex mental tasks.

While we are unable to stop the aging process in order to protect cognitive functioning, previous studies have suggested that healthy lifestyle habits, such as regular physical activity, can help.

Gardener and colleagues build on such findings with their latest research, which found that having more ideal heart health factors – defined as closely adhering to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) “Life’s Simple 7” – may protect brain function for older people.

The Life’s Simple 7 incorporates regular physical activity, a healthy diet, weight management, tobacco avoidance and good control of blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure.

The team analyzed the data of 1,033 adults of an average age of 72 who were part of the Northern Manhattan Study. Of these participants, 16% were white, 19% were black and 65% were Hispanic.

Subjects’ adherence to measures of Life’s Simple 7 were assessed at study baseline, and all participants underwent tests for memory, thinking and brain processing speed – a measure of how quickly an individual is able to perform cognitive tasks that require concentration.

The cognitive testing was repeated around 6 years later for 722 of the participants.

The team found that participants who had better measures of cardiovascular health at study baseline also had better brain processing speed at that time point, and this association was strongest for non-smokers and adults with an ideal weight and blood glucose levels.

At follow-up, the researchers found that participants who had more cardiovascular health factors at baseline experienced less decline in brain processing speed, memory and executive function – associated with time management, attention and planning and organization – than those with fewer cardiovascular health factors.

Commenting on the implications of these findings, Gardener says:

Achieving the health metrics of Life’s Simple 7 is associated with a reduced risk of strokes and heart attacks, even among the elderly. And the finding that they may also impact cognitive or brain function underscores the importance of measuring, monitoring and controlling these seven factors by patients and physicians.”

However, the researchers say further studies are required to determine exactly what value routine assessment and treatment of risk factors for cardiovascular health – such as high blood pressure – has for reducing cognitive decline.

“In addition,” says Gardener, “further study is needed to identify the age ranges, or periods over the life course, during which cardiovascular health factors and behaviors may be most influential in determining late-life cognitive impairment, and how behavioral and health modifications may influence cognitive performance and mitigate decline over time.”

Earlier this month, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting computer use might reduce cognitive decline.