Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain

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The same healthy lifestyle choices that can help prevent heart disease and stroke can also help maintain healthy brain function.

By Dina Rogers
American Heart Association

What helps your heart can help your brain too. Following a heart-healthy lifestyle can lower your chances of having a stroke, and it can also make a big difference in your mental abilities as you age.

In fact, getting plenty of physical activity, eating a healthy diet, and other behaviors that strengthen your heart can have a profound effect on the way you think, how you act, and what you remember.

“Most people don’t understand the connection between heart health and brain health, and as doctors we’re learning more every day,” says Ralph Sacco, MD, chief of neurology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and past president of the American Heart Association. “New studies have shown that the risk factors that can lead to heart disease and stroke, such as physical inactivity and obesity, also contribute to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and cognitive dysfunction.”

Here’s what happens: Those unhealthy behaviors can lead to narrowing of the blood vessels. That reduces blood flow to the brain and leads to hardening of the arteries of the heart and the brain.

When the brain doesn’t get the blood flow it needs, it can begin to malfunction. As a result, Dr. Sacco says, you could experience problems thinking, trouble with memory, difficulty finding your way from place to place, and deterioration of cognitive function. If blood flow to the brain is abruptly blocked, you could even have a stroke.

“People often associate memory loss with Alzheimer’s disease, and they think it can’t be prevented or treated,” says Dr. Sacco, who in 2010 became the first neurologist to serve as president of the American Heart Association. “But controlling your risk factors for heart disease can make a difference in slowing its progression.”

Donna Arnett, PhD, the current president of the American Heart Association, says that while most of us don’t think about heart disease and Alzheimer’s as connected, it’s a critical link. “Many people don’t realize that these terrible diseases are closely related. It may not seem natural—after all, the heart and the brain are vastly different organs. But the good news is that making healthy choices can help you prevent both of these devastating diseases altogether.”

Dr. Sacco says that making healthy lifestyle choices from an early age can make a real difference. “Most of the time, like heart disease, it takes years of uncontrolled, unhealthy habits to wreak havoc on your brain, so it’s important to think about healthy habits as early as childhood and maintain them through adulthood and middle age,” he says. “Many of these unhealthy behaviors translate to high blood pressure, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol by the time you’re in your fifties.”

The High Blood Pressure Connection
“The one factor that is the strongest predictor of brain health is high blood pressure,” Dr. Sacco says. “It’s the most significant risk factor for stroke. It also has the most evidence suggesting that it leads to blockages of small arteries and impaired brain health.”

Many people don’t know that they have high blood pressure because it has no visible symptoms, which is why it’s dubbed “the silent killer.” It can be controlled with lifestyle changes and medication, so visiting your healthcare professional to check your blood pressure is very important. Learn about high blood pressure and what you can do to control it.

Getting on the Right Path
It is also important to discuss with your healthcare provider any cognitive problems you’re having.

“If you’re having trouble with memory or thinking, tell your doctor—and then tell your doctor again,” Dr. Sacco says. “We all have a little trouble when we age, like forgetting where we put our keys, but if your thinking problems seem more than the usual, your doctor may be able to find out if there’s really something wrong. You may need to be evaluated by a neurologist or someone who specializes in cognitive issues.”

You might undergo testing to see how well your memory is working. You might also need to see a neuropsychologist, who can use brain teasers, puzzles, and other tests to assess your cognitive function and compare it with that of other people your age.

The next step: strive for a healthy lifestyle. This includes getting plenty of physical activity and following a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, and fish. Maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking, and managing your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol are all critical.

Although healthy behaviors should ideally start early, it’s never too late. You can get a snapshot of your heart health and get help making improvements at mylifecheck.org.

 

Fighting Heart Disease and Stroke

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Stroke ranks fourth, and it is also a leading cause of severe, long-term disability. Researchers with the American Heart Association have long understood the connections between heart disease and stroke. In 1997 the organization created the American Stroke Association division to focus entirely on stroke. To learn more, volunteer, or donate, visit strokeassociation.org and heart.org/conditions.

“Mommy’s Brain Got Hurt”

A young mother survives a stroke determined to raise awareness and embrace positivity.

Katherine Wolf was a 26-year-old wife and new mother breaking into the commercial modeling business in Los Angeles when she felt a little “funky” one morning. She wondered if she might be pregnant again.

That afternoon, as her six-month-old son was napping in the other room, her hands, arms, and legs went numb. Katherine dropped to the floor and curled up.

Her husband, Jay, happened to come home minutes later. He called 9-1-1, and Katherine was rushed to the hospital, where she would spend 16 hours undergoing brain surgery.

Katherine had suffered a massive brain stem stroke. Doctors now know that she was born with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). An AVM occurs when a tangle of blood vessels bypasses and diverts blood directly from arteries to the veins, which can cause damage to the blood vessel walls. In Katherine’s case the AVM ruptured and caused bleeding into her brain.

Doctors removed more than half of Katherine’s cerebellum during surgery and had to sacrifice many of the intracranial nerves that allow function in the face, eyes, ears, and throat. They didn’t know if Katherine would survive or, if she did, whether she could ever be taken off life support.

Katherine spent 40 days in intensive care and nearly four months overall at UCLA Medical Center before being transferred to Casa Colina, a rehabilitation center in nearby Pomona, where she had to relearn basic functions like eating, speaking, and walking. “Literally, everything was gone,” Katherine says.

It was 11 months before she could swallow food again. Until then she was fed through a tube in her stomach. Katherine managed to take a few steps about a year and a half after the stroke. Today she can walk a short distance with a cane; she also uses a wheelchair.

Since the stroke she has had nine surgeries, including one in the summer of 2012 to place a rod in her right leg, which she broke in multiple places as the result of a fall. She continues to experience severe double vision, partial facial paralysis, partial deafness, and lack of right-hand coordination.

Despite her continued challenges, Katherine has emerged with her personality and memory intact—along with her optimistic spirit. “We do not have control over what happens to us in life,” she says. “What we have control over is our response to what happened to us.”

Katherine, now 31, relies on her Christian faith as she enjoys daily life with Jay and her son, James, now five. She is grateful that the stroke occurred at home, not while she was driving with James, and that Jay unexpectedly came home that day. “I don’t believe in happenstance,” she says. “I feel like he was home to save my life.” Jay, who had been finishing work for his final law school class at Pepperdine University that day, jokes that his procrastination saved Katherine’s life.

Occasionally, James sees photos of his mom from before the stroke, but he’s never really known his mother any way other than how she is now. “He says, ‘Mommy’s brain got hurt,’” Katherine says. “It’s really sweet.” Sometimes he asks Katherine questions about her life before the stroke, like whether she could run fast before her brain got hurt.

Today Katherine spends time volunteering in James’s pre-kindergarten class and is passionate about giving inspirational speeches of hope and raising awareness among women about strokes. She became involved with the American Heart Association by speaking at Go Red for Women luncheons in the Los Angeles area. She also is featured in a new campaign by the American Stroke Association—“FAST”—about using body language to recognize the warning signs of a stroke. Katherine represents the F, which stands for “face drooping,” in both a video and print ads.

Katherine says she’s heard that challenges can make you bitter or beautiful. She’s choosing beautiful. “It’s really a miracle that I’m here,” she says, adding that her faith and continued hope have helped her cope with this life-altering adversity. “It’s deeply gratifying to me to be able to share hope with other people,” she says. “Hope heals your soul.”

 

Sharing Hope

After Katherine experienced the stroke and during her recovery, friends and family collected updates about her condition and progress and posted them online through a specially created website. As she recovered, Katherine herself began posting via a CaringBridge site and realized that the process of writing was helping her cope with her new reality, and she really enjoyed sharing her news in this format. Now Katherine maintains her own site, hope-heals.com, where she posts news of her life—about the stroke and the continued challenges and about her life in general. “My life looks very different than I thought it would at this age,” she writes on the site, “but that does not mean it is not a beautiful life. I am so much more than my injury, and a website about me should reflect that.”

Learn more about Katherine’s story and her ongoing journey at hope-heals.com.