A Heart-healthy Diet Keeps Your Brain Healthy, Too

heart and brain healthy foodAMES, Iowa – Many Iowans get inspired to follow a heart-healthy diet during February -- American Heart Month -- since heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. However, the heart isn’t the only organ that benefits from following a heart-healthy diet.

“Your brain also benefits, which is important to remain strong and independent throughout life,” said Sarah Francis, an Iowa State University assistant professor and ISU Extension and Outreach nutrition specialist.

“About 20 to 25 percent of the blood pumped by your heart travels to your brain, so it’s important to keep your heart working properly. There is growing evidence that heart health is connected with brain health. In fact, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Francis said

Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of thinking problems and memory loss in older adults. About one of every three older adults who die yearly has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with more than 5 million Americans living with the disease.  

“Although there are several unchangeable risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia including genetics, age and family history; there are some lifestyle changes we can make such as eating healthy and being physically active that will lower our risk. It is important that individuals adopt lifestyles that can help reduce their risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” Francis said  

A brain-healthy diet, like a heart-healthy diet, helps promote blood flow to the brain. Francis suggests following these tips for a healthy heart and brain.

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of heart disease and dementia. Think of this as a lifestyle change and not a diet. For information about how to achieve and maintain a healthy weight visit, http://myplate.gov. “You can get a meal plan and track your dietary intake and physical activity for free,” Francis said.
  • Reduce intake of high fat and high cholesterol foods. Saturated fat and cholesterol can damage blood vessels, Francis said. Choose healthier mono- and poly-unsaturated fats as found in olive oil, canola oils and nuts. Eat lean protein, including coldwater fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna and trout. Consume low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
  • Increase intake of antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Stay active. Get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week.

Live Healthy Iowa

In addition to a heart- and brain-healthy diet, try the Live Healthy Iowa 10-Week Challenge. This team-based weight loss and physical activity program helps Iowans make positive changes that lead to a healthier lifestyle. To learn more or register, visit www.LiveHealthyIowa.org. Live Healthy Iowa is a partnership of the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa Sports Foundation and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

For more information on nutrition and health, visit www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/healthy-living-and-eating-families.