If you want to live a long, healthy life, one of your top priorities should be taking care of your heart and brain. While it’s no secret that these organs are critical to overall health and nearly every bodily function, unfortunately many people live lifestyles that are not only detrimental to their heart and brain health, but also increase their risk of developing chronic diseases affecting these vital organs. such as heart disease and dementia. In fact, heart disease has been the leading cause of death in America since 1950, and Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) is in the top 10 causes of death in the US. history is beyond your control, most are modifiable lifestyle factors. Translation? You have the power to adopt healthy lifestyle habits that reduce your risk of developing these devastating diseases.
Healthy lifestyle habits that slow aging (e.g. regular exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep, avoidance of alcohol and tobacco) can improve several biomarkers associated with higher disease risk. For example, your cholesterol levels are biomarkers associated with atherosclerosis — plaque buildup in your arteries that vastly increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, a November 2022 study published in Scientific Reportsfound that having high levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) can increase your risk of not only Alzheimer’s disease, but all types of dementia (of which there are more than 100).
To find out how you can control your cholesterol and help prevent cognitive decline as you age, we spoke to Kelsey Lorencz, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Nutrition Advisor for Fin vs. Fin, who studies how cholesterol may affect dementia risk. Plus, she shares some bits of wisdom on ways to improve your heart and brain health and add years to your life.
High LDL cholesterol increases the risk of dementia.
To arrive at these findings, researchers conducted a nationwide cohort study examining the association between cholesterol levels and dementia risk in the “presence of diabetes and statin use.” The researchers reviewed data from the Korean National Health Insurance Services, which included a whopping 6,883,494 people. All individuals enrolled in the study had had health screenings in 2009 and were 40 years of age or older. Under the data set, researchers found that 4% of the cohort developed dementia. In addition, those with high LDL cholesterol levels showed the greatest risk of dementia.
It’s not just high LDL cholesterol that’s bad for you. Low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) can also lead to dementia. Says Lorencz: “A March 2022 study found a link between low HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides and high glucose levels from age 35 and dementia later in life. In the study, raising HDL by 15 points reduced between the ages of 35 and 50 the risk of dementia by 15%.”
RELATED: This one habit may help reverse your brain’s aging, says a new study
Taking statins and having diabetes can affect brain health.
If you’re one of the more than 200 million people worldwide who take statins for heart health, you may be at increased risk of developing dementia. In addition to high LDL cholesterol increasing the risk of dementia, the study also found that individuals taking statins (cholesterol-lowering medications) were more likely to develop dementia. These findings are not surprising, says Lorencz.
“Studies have shown that high cholesterol is linked to developing vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, two of the most common forms of this debilitating disease.”
Plus, having diabetes can increase your chances of cognitive decline, especially if it’s type 2. “Type 2 diabetes is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, most likely because of its relationship to heart disease,” says Lorencz. Previous research has concluded that having diabetes is associated with a significantly higher risk of dementia.
Ways to improve your heart and brain health.
The best way to improve your heart and brain health while helping prevent dementia is to adopt a host of healthy lifestyle habits. Taking the following daily actions can reduce your risk of chronic disease and improve overall health:
Eat a healthy, balanced diet: More whole foods, less processed junk.
Exercise regularly: Do both cardio and strength training exercises.
Get at least seven hours of sleep per night: Getting enough Z’s is essential for healthy aging.
Maintain a healthy weight: Carrying extra weight can affect your heart health and increase your risk of chronic diseases such as dementia.
Watch your cholesterol: Keep your LDL cholesterol low and your HDL cholesterol high.
Manage your blood sugar: Eating a poor diet that constantly raises your blood sugar can lead to diabetes, which significantly increases your risk of heart disease and dementia. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption; need we say more?
Ultimately, diet and exercise are critical factors in reducing your risk of heart disease, dementia and diabetes. “Eating a diet high in fiber and low in processed, sugary foods can encourage a healthy heart, blood sugar levels and healthy brain. Plus, it can make a big difference in brain and heart health by making exercise a daily part of your routine Lorencz says. “Researchers analyzed 11 studies and found that regular exercise can reduce the risk of dementia by as much as 30 percent. In addition, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, which may lower the risk of heart disease by 20%.
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