With aging comes increasing concern about brain conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke risk. But what many people may not realize is that there’s a link between brain and heart health. Many risk factors that are known to contribute to the development and progression of heart disease are also involved in brain disease. Below, Summit Health cardiologist Dr. Ian Riddock breaks down this connection and provides tips on how to ensure your overall health.

What’s the Connection Between the Brain and the Heart?

“You have arteries and veins that flow to the brain just as they do to your other organs,” Dr. Riddock explains. “If your heart can’t pump blood then your organs—including your brain—can’t get the oxygen and the nutrients they need.”

Dr. Riddock highlights something he once heard from a prominent neurologist who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease prevention. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” he says. “This is because many risk factors of heart disease are associated with plaque build-up in the arteries.” Those risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes or insulin resistance
  • Smoking

If the plaque build-up in the arteries occurs in the heart, then it leads to heart disease. If it occurs in the arteries of the brain, it can lead to stroke and certain types of dementia, including vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Vascular dementia is caused by sudden or chronic recurrent impairments in blood flow to the brain,” Dr. Riddock says. “This is commonly due to strokes or recurrent mini-strokes. High blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and smoking are major contributing risk factors to strokes and mini-strokes. They are also implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.”

What Role Does Stress Play?

Another notable connection between heart and brain health is the impact stress has on both of these organs. “Chronic stress has a strong negative association with various health outcomes, including heart disease, stroke, and dementia,” says Dr. Riddock.

Chronic stress exhibits its negative effects through three main mechanisms:

  • Increased production of stress hormones like cortisol
  • Increased production of adrenalin
  • Increased propensity to engage in negative health behaviors—such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and poor dietary habits​—as a coping mechanism

All three mechanisms ultimately lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, chronic inflammation, and vascular damage.

How Do I Protect My Heart and Brain?

The best way to prevent heart and brain disease is through a healthy lifestyle. “I like to provide what I call the Simple Seven Tips,” says Dr. Riddock. These are:

  • Maintain a normal body mass index.
  • Ensure your cholesterol level is normal.
  • Exercise and stay active.
  • Ensure you have normal blood glucose levels.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Make sure your blood pressure is in check.
  • Eat a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet, which focuses on plants, healthy fats, lean meats, and whole grains.

Dr. Riddock also advises getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night and finding a supportive social network. By being an active participant in your own well-being, you’ll be laying the path for an overall healthy life.