New research that followed people for 30 years beginning in their 20s found that better markers for cardiovascular health, including lower blood sugar and body weight, at age 20 were associated with greater brain volume when they reached middle age.
It is not surprising that keeping a healthy lifestyle is less taxing for the brain, given the now firmly established link between blood sugar dysregulation and heart disease on one hand, and its implications for certain degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease, on the other.
The report, published in the journal Neurology, is based off of guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA), called ‘Life Simple 7’, for improving heart health.
The AHA put together a list of seven prime factors promoting heart function, including normal cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced blood sugar, healthy eating, weight control, smoking cessation and exercise.
All those variables also happen to, independently or not, benefit the brain on some level in the findings of this study, which recruited volunteers part of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study.
Take exercise, for example, it makes the heart beat faster, which increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, the biggest consumer of oxygen in the body.
The research took a group of 518 people and tracked them, at twenty or so, for 30 years. Aged 51, the participants underwent a series of health measurements, as they’ve done at the start and after two, five and 25 years.
Researchers found that cardiovascular health across the lifespan is related to brain structure changes in those that followed the 7 steps, as they proceeded through middle adulthood and into late adulthood.
Everyone got a score from 0 to 14 on how well they followed them and, according to the researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, a high score at the start meant a higher whole brain volume when they reached the age of 50.
In contrast, every point lower a person scored on the Life’s Simple 7 corresponded with about one year of age-related brain shrinkage or atrophy in total brain volumen, but not in regional areas of the brain. Larger brain volume is associated with increased executive functioning and overall cognitive function.
Brain atrophy during aging depends upon several risk factors, including hypertensio, type 2 diabetes, alcohol consumptio, hyperlipidemia and smoking, which was the factor most strongly correlated to smaller brain volume.
Overall, this study shows that heart health may have an impact on brain function in early life and that borrowing some ideas from Life’s Simple 7 to stay healthy at a young age in that area can go a long way to improve brain function.

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