Heart fitness impacts brain health

Gloria and Ken exercise
Approaching middle age? If so, fitness is more important than ever. A recent study revealed that poor heart health at age 40 was tied to worse outcomes for the brain 20 years later.

“As you begin exercising, your heart rate starts to increase which makes your heart pump more blood to the rest of your body,” said Gloria Summers, Salem Health cardiac rehabilitation exercise specialist. “The heart pumps blood into two main blood vessels on either side of the neck that provides the blood supply for the brain.”

According to Summers, if you don’t exercise to keep your heart healthy, your blood vessels can narrow, and your arteries harden, reducing blood flow to the heart and brain. If your brain does not get the blood flow it needs, you can lose cognitive function.

The study, led by author Nicole Spartano of Boston University School of Medicine, found that if participant fitness level was below average at age 40, you could expect brain shrinkage equal to an extra year of aging at age 60. Participants who showed signs of cardiovascular disease or took beta blockers with below-average fitness showed two extra years of aging.

“When we rehabilitate patients from a cardiac condition, we provide education to help patients understand the importance of exercise,” Summers said. “This study reinforces how important fitness is in middle age and in ensuring a healthy brain and heart.”

The study tested participant heart rate and blood pressure in response to exercise on a treadmill and compared results nearly two decades later with a treadmill test and MRI brain scan. Poor cardiovascular health resulted in smaller total cerebral brain volume in participants.

“Eating a balanced diet (including fish, vegetables, etc.), not smoking, monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol, and exercising are all important to heart health,” Summers said. “It is never too late to improve your exercise routine, especially midlife, to potentially prevent cognitive decline in the future.”

If you are concerned about your fitness level, please see your primary care provider. The Salem Health Community Health Education Center offers a variety of exercise classes with instructors that can adapt exercises to your ability. You can also sign up for a $10 health screening that includes cholesterol, blood sugar level, blood pressure and body mass index information. At the screening, a registered nurse can help you understand your results and provide ideas for next steps. If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, please call 911.

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