How To Stay Sharp
“It’s great news,” says Danine Fruge, MD, Medical Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, which has been helping people develop heart-healthy habits since 1975.
“There really appears to be a magic combination. Daily physical activity and a Pritikin-style diet full of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, fish, and other healthful foods can produce immense benefits for both body and brain.”
And it’s none too soon.
Alzheimer’s, Other Dementias
Diseases of cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias, are now the sixth leading cause of death in America. And death is hardly the only problem. What these mind-robbers can do to the last several years of one’s life is heart breaking. For many of these years, 24-hour care is needed, and usually in nursing homes.
“No one wants to suffer with dementias, especially when there’s much that’s in our power to fend them off,” acknowledges Tom Rifai, MD, FACP, Regional Medical Director of Metabolic Health & Weight Management at Henry Ford Health System in Michigan and member of the Pritikin Scientific Advisory Board.
“I’ve found that many of my patients are highly motivated to make lifestyle changes when they get the message that it’s largely how they live that protects them from strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, and loss of brain function.”
More Energy, More Joy
“Keep in mind, too, that we’re not just talking about avoiding disease. We’re talking about living better,” adds Dr. Fruge.
“After just one to two weeks of being here at Pritikin, my patients often tell me, ‘I didn’t know I could feel this good at my age,’ and ‘I had no idea I could have this much energy.’
“Now that’s living – living well. And that’s what the heart-healthy skills we teach at Pritikin give people.”
Hearts and Minds | Protecting Both
Here is a sampling of recent studies that have linked heart health with brain health.
Ideal Cardiovascular Health and Cognitive Aging
In this investigation,1 researchers led by Dr. Hannah Gardener from the Department of Neurology at the University of Miami School of Medicine hypothesized that the more heart-healthy a person was, the less decline in cognitive health he or she would suffer.
They were right.
The scientists began by assessing the cardiovascular health of an older (average age, 72) ethnically diverse group of 1,033 men and women living in Northern Manhattan in New York City.
They were evaluated in terms of how well they met the target levels of seven cardiovascular health factors used by the American Heart Association to define ideal heart health.
Ideal Heart Hearth | American Heart Association
- Physical activity – More than 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity or 75 minutes or more a week of vigorous intensity, or an equivalent combination
- Diet – 4 or 5 healthy components based on 5 health dietary metrics: 4.5 or more cups of fruits and vegetables a day; 2 or more 3.5-ounce servings of fish per week; 3 servings of fiber-rich, whole grains a day; fewer than 1,500 mg of sodium a day; and 450 calories or fewer of sugar-sweetened beverages a week
- Blood pressure – Less than 120/80, untreated (no medications necessary)
- Cholesterol – Total cholesterol: Less than 200, untreated
- Glucose (fasting) – Less than 100, untreated
- Smoking – Never, or quit more than a year age
- Weight (body mass index, or BMI) – Less than 25. (Visit NIH to calculate your BMI.)
In addition to their cardiovascular assessments, the 1,033 New Yorkers underwent neurological testing over the course of six years to measure how well their brains were doing in terms of key cognitive skills like memory, processing speed, and executive function. (Executive function is essentially the ability to plan ahead, make decisions, and react to new events.)
Better Hearts, Better Minds
At the end of the study, the scientists found that the greater the number of ideal cardiovascular health factors the people had, the clearer their minds were.
“The results of this study suggest that achievement of the American Heart Association’s ideal cardiovascular health metrics may have benefits for brain health in addition to preventing strokes and myocardial infarctions [heart attacks], even among elderly individuals,” wrote Dr. Gardener and fellow researchers.
Healthy Heart, Healthy Mind
Keeping your arteries clear can help you stay sharp as you age. Here are 9 Steps For Improving Heart Health Naturally
“As the U.S. population ages and the number of people at risk for cognitive impairment grows, the public health implications of targeting these modifiable risk factors will be substantial.”
Blood Vessel Damage
How exactly do heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high glucose, and diets teeming with saturated fat, sugar, and salt lead to cognitive troubles? They damage the blood vessels in the brain. The arteries become stiffened and narrowed. Plaque builds. (Yes, just as plaque builds in arteries leading to the heart.)
All this damage makes it much harder for blood flow in the brain to happen normally.
Blood vessel damage can lead not only to major brain breakdown like stroke and dementia but also to mild cognitive impairment. (People with mild cognitive impairment often go on to develop dementia.)
How To Stay Sharp In Midlife
It’s not just older people who reap cognitive benefits from heart-healthy living. In a 26-year study2 that followed nearly 3,000 people ages 18 to 30 as they moved into their 40s and 50s, scientists found that the number of ideal cardiovascular health factors in young adulthood was associated with better psychomotor speed, executive function, and verbal memory in midlife.
Effects of Individual Heart-Health Factors
Strong evidence also exists for the link between individual cardiovascular health factors and brain health.
High Blood Pressure
There is ample evidence, for example, that high blood pressure, alone, is a key risk factor for cognitive loss. People who have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, in their 50s and 60s have been documented3 to have a higher risk of dementia in their 70s and 80s.
Research4 also shows that high blood pressure is by far the #1 risk factor for the approximately 800,000 strokes Americans suffer each year. Nearly 150,000 die of it. Most of the rest suffer permanent damage to at least part of their brains. What’s more, stroke is the #1 reason why Americans end up in nursing care facilities.
“This toll on health occurs despite the fact that hypertension can largely be prevented and/or reversed simply by changing one’s diet and lifestyle,” observes Dr. Jay Kenney, Nutrition Research Specialist and Educator at the Pritikin Longevity Center.
“As research5 on the Pritikin Program of diet and exercise has found, the vast majority of people with hypertension can lower their blood pressure to normal or near-normal levels within two to three weeks.”
Characteristics of the Pritikin Program that are particularly helpful in reducing blood pressure include:
- Lowering sodium intake to 1,500 mg or fewer a day
- Losing weight by exercising daily, minimizing calorie-dense foods, and eating more vegetables, fruits, and other nutrient-rich, low-calorie-dense foods
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Quitting smoking
High Glucose | Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is so closely linked to Alzheimer’s disease that many researchers call Alzheimer’s disease type 3 diabetes.
Also worrisome is the fact that you don’t even have to have full-blown diabetes to increase your risk of cognitive decline. People in the pre-diabetes stage (those with the metabolic syndrome and/or with blood glucose higher than 100) have an increased risk of dementia.
We’re talking a lot of people. Roughly one out of three adults in America now have the metabolic syndrome. It is a cluster of abnormalities that includes high glucose, high blood pressure, belly fat, and high triglycerides (blood fats).
If you don’t use your muscles, you just might lose your brain.
That’s the conclusion of dozens of studies over the past four decades. Most have found that people who exercise regularly have a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia over time versus those who don’t.
As a matter of fact, it’s often a significantly lower risk. In one recent study,6 for example, scientists from Columbia University Medical Center and other research universities followed men and women with an average age of 71 for five years.
Of the 876 participants, 90% were either sedentary or light exercisers (easy-paced walking or yoga). The other 10% worked out regularly at moderate or high-intensity levels, similar to the exercise program taught at the Pritikin Longevity Center.
The scientists found that the people who exercised moderately or vigorously were rewarded with reduced risk of memory loss and executive function “equivalent to about 10 years of aging,” noted Dr. Mitchell Elkind, one of the study’s authors.
Other Heart-Health Risk Factors
Other cardiovascular risk factors that have each proven to increase the risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s or other dementias include poor diet, high cholesterol levels, excess weight, and smoking.
The Pritikin Program
“The good news is that all these risk factors – high blood pressure, high glucose, the metabolic syndrome, sedentary living, excess weight, and a poor diet – have been documented7 to improve with the Pritikin Program, and within just two weeks,” observes Dr. Fruge.
Bottom Line | How To Stay Sharp As You Age
“When you eat a very good heart-healthy diet like the Pritikin Eating Plan and stay physically active, you do very good things for both heart and brain,” sums up Dr. Fruge.
“We all want to do everything we can to avoid Alzheimer’s and other dementias. If heart-healthy habits can help our minds stay sharp as we age, well, that’s even more motivation to embrace a heart-healthy lifestyle like the Pritikin Program. Clear arteries and a clear mind – that’s how we all want to spend our golden years.”
- 1 JAMA, 2016; 5: e002731.
- 2 Annals of Neurology, 2013; 73 (2): 170.
- 3 Neurology, 2001; 56 (1): 42.
- 4 Heart.org
- 5 Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005; 98 (1): 3.
- 6 Neurology, Published online before print March 23, 2016,
- 7 Journal of the CardioMetabolic Syndrome, 2006; 1 (5): 308.