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Categories > Heart Health > Heart disease: Causes and risks

Double-duty disease fighters

Think of your heart as the master of ceremonies: It keeps the show running smoothly by pumping blood throughout your body. About 20 percent of that blood goes to your brain. If your heart is damaged and can’t do its job, there’s less blood and oxygen for your brain. The end result? Damage to brain cells.

Dementia is one sign of damage. It’s an umbrella term that actually refers to many different conditions that impair how the brain functions. Alzheimer’s is the most common type. Vascular dementia, the second most common affliction, is a direct result of blood vessels to the brain narrowing or becoming blocked.

Similar risk factors

Some risk factors for dementia are the same as those for heart disease, including:

  • high levels of bad cholesterol, or LDL
  • diabetes
  • atherosclerosis, or buildup of plaque in the arteries
  • increased levels of the amino acid homocysteine

Staving off dementia

While there’s no surefire way to prevent dementia, you can take measures to make sure your heart keeps getting blood to your brain:

  • Beware of multiple risk factors. Studies have pointed to a mental decline in those with metabolic syndrome—a group of heart disease risk factors that includes excessive abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high triglycerides (a type of blood fat), high blood sugar and low levels of good cholesterol, or HDL.
  • Maintain normal blood glucose levels if you have diabetes. Keeping blood sugar in check can reduce vascular damage and help brain function.
  • Exercise regularly. It helps you maintain your weight and ramps up production of growth factors, chemicals that help brain cells survive. In people with early Alzheimer’s, being physically fit may help lessen damage to key areas of the brain, according to one study.
  • Lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. If you can’t do it through diet and exercise alone, talk with your doctor about medication.
  • Talk with your doctor about how much folate and vitamins B6 and B12 you need. They may help lower homocysteine levels. There’s no proof that reducing homocysteine can be a definite benefit, but these are vital nutrients anyway.