The head and the heart, a beloved indie Seattle band and two of the most vital organs in your body.
While often considered at odds (“follow your heart” versus “use your head”), the two organs work together to help you function — which means the health of one affects the other.
“The brain and the heart are intimately connected, and diseases of the brain can affect the heart and vice versa,” says Dr. David Tirschwell, medical director of Comprehensive Stroke Care at Harborview Medical Center.
The connection between heart health and stroke
Your heart and brain are connected through blood vessels and nerves, including some of the largest blood vessels in your body.
“About 20% of the entire blood flow output from the heart goes north to the head, so a lot of the work the heart is doing pumping blood is to supply blood to the brain,” Tirschwell says.
The brain relies on this blood, and the oxygen and nutrients in it, to function. If your brain doesn’t receive these, you can experience a stroke, which is when parts of your brain and brain cells die due to lack of blood.
A stroke is caused by clots blocking the blood vessels leading to your brain (called an ischemic stroke) or by blood vessels bursting and causing bleeding in the brain (called a hemorrhagic stroke). In some cases, you can also experience a transient ischemic attack, which is a smaller, temporary blood vessel blockage.
Since your heart supplies the blood and oxygen that’s essential for your brain, it comes as no surprise that heart disease and various heart conditions, like atrial fibrillation, heart failure and high blood pressure, increase your risk of experiencing a stroke.
People with atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm, are five times more likely to experience a stroke than people who do not have atrial fibrillation. This irregular heartbeat increases the risk that a clot can form in your heart that can break free and travel to the brain, Tirschwell explains. Heart failure also increases the risk of blood clots forming in the heart and moving to the brain. And high blood pressure, which damages your blood vessels and increases the chance of rupture, is the leading cause of heart disease and stroke.
The connection between vascular health and dementia
Vascular health (aka the health of your blood vessels) can affect cognitive function in older age, including being linked with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“We can say with increasing confidence that what helps your vascular health also reduces your risk of dementia,” Tirschwell says. “More and more it’s being realized that there’s quite often a vascular component in the development of dementia, and better vascular health can be a way to stave off dementia.”
High blood pressure is again a main culprit in harming your vessels and brain, including contributing to hemorrhagic stroke and to vascular dementia.
6 ways to promote heart and brain health
Talk of strokes, heart disease and dementia can be scary, but the interconnectedness of your heart and brain is a good thing: it means taking steps to promote heart health also benefits your brain.
Tirschwell recommends following the American Heart Association steps for promoting heart and brain health:
- Eat well: Try to eat a mix of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and oils such as olive and canola.
- Exercise: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise (like a brisk walk) and 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (like a high-intensity interval training or HIIT workout) per week.
- Avoid nicotine: including cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaping. If you’re looking to quit, tobacco cessation programs and the Washington quit line can help.
- Sleep: Strive for seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night. It can help to keep your sleep environment cool and dark, avoid tech before bed and use a white noise machine.
- Manage weight: Implement healthy lifestyle choices (like those noted above) to maintain a healthy weight. The American Heart Association considers a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to be healthy, though it’s important to keep in mind that the BMI assessment tool is imperfect.
- Monitor your cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure: Your primary care doctor can help check your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels to make sure you are in a healthy range. This is important because too much cholesterol can narrow and block blood vessels, too much blood sugar can damage the heart and high blood pressure harms your blood vessels.
Changing your daily habits is straightforward but not necessarily easy. Give yourself grace and start small as you make these changes. Your head and heart will thank you.