The human body is packed with organs. Not counting teeth, we’ve got about 78 of them, each tasked with its own key functions and duties. Independent as their functions may be, many organs also work interdependently as well, supporting the functions of one another, picking up where the other leaves off and so on. Thanks to all those organs going about their 24/7 business, we’re able to go about ours.
While some organs are more essential than others (we’re looking at you tonsils) in the hierarchy of the body, the ones you truly can’t live without – the heart and brain – top the list. And the better you treat them, the healthier you’ll be, so always treat them with the utmost TLC. What’s in it for you? A happy and healthy heart and brain that stay that way for as long as possible. To do that, here’s what you need to keep in mind:
As the heart goes, so goes the brain.
At one level, it’s common sense that the major organ systems in your body depend on each other. If one organ heads south – be it the kidneys, lungs, liver, what have you – the whole person is in trouble. But the connection between heart and brain is especially intimate. They can help each other, and hurt each other, in ways that, odds are, will determine how long and how well you live from middle age on.
Doctors have known for more than a century that a heart that’s not pumping enough blood to maintain a healthy body is also not getting enough blood to the brain. The result is what’s called vascular dementia – whole regions of the brain can wither away without a good supply of oxygen and nutrients that the blood must deliver to the brain cells. Not only does less blood get to the brain, but the small vessels that rout the blood inside the brain are prone to the same fatty deposits and sludge accumulation that foul the larger pipes of the cardiovascular system, the coronary arteries especially. Heart and brain: mirror images of each other.
We’ve all seen the results the elders in our lives: the memory slippage, the decline in the ability to process new information and make quick decisions. So, it was also long understood that toxic habits that damaged the heart, like a poor diet, smoking and heavy drinking, also exacted a price on brain function as well.
The heart and brain don’t take kindly to stress.
And, as we’ve learned more about the health effects of stress and stress-driven inflammation, we’ve seen that the damage often flows in the other direction as well. When a person is stressed out, the hypothalamus region in the brain directs the body to produce high levels of its primary stress hormone, cortisol, which, over time, can lead to chronically high blood pressure. And a heart muscle ground down from too much wear and tear is less able to pump blood to the brain, pumping up the vascular dementia. It’s a vicious circle.
In more recent decades, a lot of the medical world’s attention shifted to another cause of brain decline, Alzheimer’s Disease. Cases have steadily ratcheted upward, while deaths from heart disease have actually gone down. Alzheimer’s was a more mysterious process. Tangled-up strands of protein, so-called “neurofibrillary tangles,” gummed up the brain works. Why they develop remains the subject of a messy medical debate.
But, as far as I’m concerned, there’s one big, definite take-away from the most recent research. That is: the same lifestyle factors that damage the heart and predispose you to vascular dementia also dramatically increase your risk of getting Alzheimer’s. In fact, the diagnostic line separating these two forms of brain decline is becoming less and less clear. Studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s have reduced blood flow and seriously damaged blood vessels inside the brain.
The bottom line: to pretty well ensure a healthy heart and brain for a long time to come, you’ll need to take action – the sooner the better.
Make choices that keep hearts and brains healthy for as long as possible.
Just as lot of bad behavior and lifestyle choices will bang up your heart and brain and point them in a potentially disastrous direction, healthy behaviors will have the opposite effect. The classic musts-to-avoid are the ones that you’ve heard me talk about a lot over the years, like metabolic issues like obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes; chronic inflammation; unmanaged stress; sedentary lifestyles; diets packed with processed foods and sugar; alcohol and tobacco use – you know the drill. Work on getting them under control and swapping in the following must-do’s and you’ll be well on your way to altering the course of your life – all to the good:
1. Ditch – pro-inflammatory foods, like sugar, starchy foods, industrial seed oils (aka vegetable oils), processed foods, and factory-farmed meats, which rob heart and brain health by perpetuating the kind of disastrous, almost non-stop inflammation that sets the table for life-altering neurological problems and disease.
2. Feed – hearts and brains thrive on whole, farmer’s market and/or organic, nutrient-dense foods – not sugars, industrial oils, processed foods or factory-farmed meats! So pile these health helpers high:
- Leafy greens and a ‘rainbow’ of colorful non-starchy veggies for maximum vitamins and antioxidants
- Berries and other low sugar fruits
- Omega-3-rich fish like wild salmon, anchovies, mackerel, and sardines
- Nuts and seeds
- Extra virgin olive oil and healthy fats
- Organic, grass-fed or pasture-raised animals
- Oolong or green teas
3. Move – frequently! It’s great for your heart, helps increase blood flow to the brain and supports its health. The Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation reports that regular exercise cuts the risk of neurological problems by half, so, get moving – doctor’s orders.
4. Sleep – yes, even your heart needs to take a breather at night, as does your brain, which uses the time to refresh itself and remove the protein buildup that contributes to neurological decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
5. Meditate – a practice not only supports heart health by relaxing the blood vessels and reducing blood pressure, but for the brain, meditation relieves much of the stress that can lead to brain shrinkage in the area responsible for memory.
6. Test – like a pro, and in an informed, upgraded way that goes beyond traditional testing. (We have the technology – let’s use it!) A good one to start with is cholesterol. When having your levels checked, ask for an “advanced lipid panel,” which measures your lipoprotein (a), apolipoprotein A and B, the size of the lipid particles, omega fatty acid levels and inflammatory markers – all of which are much more important markers for heart health than the way the standard total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels have been measured for the last 50 or so years. Also consider taking a genetic test test to determine if you need support with methylation and detoxification, how you metabolize saturated fats and your susceptibility to heart and brain issues, including Alzheimer’s. Knowing this information can help you take steps to improve heart and brain health – and reduce risk.
7. Monitor – in a way that takes advantage of the incredible technology we now have literally at our finger tips, and strapped to our wrists and on our arms. It’s essential to keep blood pressure in a healthy range to support long term heart and brain health, but now with wearable technology, you can measure your activity, sleep, blood sugar, heart rate and Heart Rate Variability more precisely 24/7 – and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.