With Alzheimer’s now the cause of more deaths than heart disease, experts say the best way to take care of your brain is to look after your heart. Here’s how…


A healthy heart means a healthy brain ©iStock

Get moving

Exercising for at least 150 minutes a week is the amount recommended to keep your heart healthy, says Lucy Wilkinson, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

But research shows that you can also improve both your memory and the speed at which you think things through in as little as four weeks with a combination of aerobics, strength training and stretching.

‘In the study that discovered this, participants did just 30 minutes of combined exercise three times a week,’ says nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville PhD, author of Natural Solutions To Dementia And Alzheimer’s (£12.77, Lifestyle Press).

‘Other research has shown how exercise can increase the size of your hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that shrinks with Alzheimer’s.’

  • Break exercise down into doable chunks to motivate yourself, says Lucy. ‘For example, three fast 10-minute walks five days a week.’
  • Join a yoga class. In a study of over-55s, one hour of yoga a week, together with 20 minutes of meditation a day, had more benefits for the memory than doing a one-hour brain training session once a week.
  • Learn the ancient art of tai chi. A study in the Journal Of Alzheimer’s Disease found that practising its slow meditative exercises three times a week can increase your brain volume and improve your memory and thinking.

Other studies have shown that tai chi can also strengthen your heart. If you have heart failure, it could even improve your stamina as much as aerobic activity.

Reboot your diet

Sticking to a Mediterranean diet (high in fruit, vegetables, pulses and fish) could be better for your heart – and for preventing an early death – than taking statins, according to a recent Italian study.

‘The same diet also has great benefits for your brain,’ says Dr Glenville. ‘But even more memory-friendly is the MIND diet, which is a combination of the Mediterranean and the equally heart-healthy DASH (low salt) diet.

‘It’s been shown to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s by 53% and involves eating from 10 healthy food groups:

  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Other vegetables
  • Berries
  • Fish
  • Olive oil
  • Wine (in moderation)
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Poultry
  • Beans

‘The basic rules are that you should have one salad, one other vegetable, three servings of whole grains, and one small glass of wine every day, and that you should also snack on nuts most days.

On alternate days you should eat beans, and twice a week you should eat poultry and berries. Have fish once a week, and also take care to avoid the following six unhealthy food groups:

  • Red meat
  • Butter and margarine
  • Sweets
  • Cheese
  • Pastries
  • Fried and fast foods

‘Even if you only stick to these rules moderately, research shows that you’ll lower your risk of Alzheimer’s by 35%.’

Love your zzzzzs

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say that if you don’t get enough good-quality sleep your risk of heart disease and heart attack is hiked – regardless of your age and weight, and even if you don’t smoke and you take plenty of exercise.

‘Too little sleep also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s because beta amyloid – the substance that builds up to form Alzheimer plaques on the brain – is only flushed out when you’re sleeping,’ says Dr Glenville.

‘Studies show that older people who get too little or poor-quality sleep have more of this harmful substance in their brain – and that sleeping on your side is the best way to remove it.’

  • Avoid looking at bright screens for at least two hours before you go to bed.
  • Get as much bright light as you can during the day to improve your melatonin levels.
  • Keep your bedroom totally dark at night. If you can’t do without a night light or digital alarm clock, use red light, which has the least effect on your melatonin.

Change your habits

Three of the worst habits for your heart health – smoking, alcohol and sugar – are also the worst for your brain health.

Research shows that you’re at a 38% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease if you’re getting 17-21% of your calories simply from added sugars.

Plus, 70% of people with type 2 diabetes – another condition linked to a high-sugar diet – will also go on to develop Alzheimer’s.

‘Smoking is the underlying cause of 20,000 deaths a year from cardiovascular disease,’ says Lucy. But it also doubles your risk of Alzheimer’s (and also vascular dementia, which is caused by having poor circulation).

And, according to studies, drinking heavily – which both weakens your heart muscle and raises your blood pressure – will also age your brain faster.

‘Research shows that even if you give up drinking you’re likely to carry on having a poorer memory and lower attention and problem-solving skills for up to a year,’ explains Dr Glenville.

  • Spring-clean your fridge and kitchen cupboards of all foods containing added sugars. ‘Read every label – starting with savoury foods – you’ll be surprised how many pasta sauces, soups and other foodstuffs are harbouring it,’ says Dr Glenville.
  • Avoid sugary fizzy drinks – but steer clear of the sugar-free fizzy drinks, too. These can make your body crave the sugar they didn’t provide. And watch out for caffeine – it can also trigger sugar cravings.
  • Don’t exceed the recommended guidelines for alcohol, says Lucy. ‘That’s no more than 14 units a week [for women], with several alcohol-free days.’ And remember that one glass of wine doesn’t equal one unit – it varies depending on its abv (alcohol by volume).

To work this out, always check the abv on the label. Multiply the total volume of a drink by its abv and divide the result by 1,000. For example, 175ml x 13% abv divided by 1,000 leaves  you with 2.3. So that glass of wine is 2.3 units – above the recommendation for one night’s drinking.

If you smoke to control your weight, try something weight-loss-centred, like replacing your cigarette with a stick of celery, suggests Dr Glenville.

‘It’s nutritious, will fill a hunger gap, and has almost zero calories. Holding it and munching on it will give your hands and mouth something to do until your cigarette craving has passed.

‘Eventually you’ll break free of the addiction – and you won’t have gained weight in the process!’