People who stuck to at least five of these health goals had brains that were practically 7 years younger, researchers say.
a heart made up of flowers and the texture of a brain on a designed background
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According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one person dies every 36 seconds from heart disease. That's a staggering statistic! And with heart disease being such a prevalent cause of death, there's good reason to take care of your ticker as much as possible. Some new research suggests another reason to add to our list: heart-healthy living can also help boost your brain health.

Preliminary research from a presentation at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2022 found that brain images appear healthier and have fewer injuries in people who live a heart-healthy lifestyle. The research surveyed more than 35,000 adults between the ages of 40 and 69. The researchers used the American Heart Association (AHA)'s Life's Simple 7—a list of seven major ways to reduce your heart disease risk—to determine what makes a heart-healthy lifestyle. 

The seven factors on Life's Simple 7 are:

  1. Stop Smoking
  2. Eat Better
  3. Get Active
  4. Lose Weight
  5. Manage Blood Pressure
  6. Control Cholesterol
  7. Reduce Blood Sugar

Each factor is graded on a two point scale, for a total of 14 points. Researchers divided the participants into three groups: poor (zero to four), average (five to nine) and optimal (10 to 14). Participants who scored in the optimal level had 2.4% larger brains and 43% less white-matter intensities, according to the MRI scans the researchers took. (Even those who scored in the average range had 0.86% larger brains and 18% less white-matter intensities than those who scored in the poor range.)

"Reductions in brain volume are associated with aging-related conditions and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease," said Julian N. Acosta, M.D., the lead researcher, in a media release. "White matter hyperintensities are usually a marker of injury to the brain, and these lesions often accumulate through life in people with diseased blood vessels due to other health conditions such as high blood pressure."

Acosta added that the participants in the optimal level had such significantly better scans, and their brains were "equivalent to a brain that is approximately seven years younger" than their respective ages.

To start aiming for an optimal score on Life's Simple 7, you may want to start with eating better. That may sound amorphous, but a good starting place could be adding more plant-based meals to your routine, which could lower your risk of heart disease, according to research. If you want to jumpstart your plan, try a heart-healthy diet that's easy to follow, like the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet.

In any case, you'll want to dial back your sodium and saturated fat intake. All of our heart-healthy recipes are lower in sodium and saturated fat (based on the recommendations from the AHA) but still just as delicious as ever. Consuming too much saturated fat can raise your "bad" LDL cholesterol levels, and cutting your sodium intake can help lower your blood pressure—so you can start knocking another two items off your list.

"Thinking about the foods you need to 'cut out' of your diet can feel stressful," says Victoria Seaver, M.S., RD, EatingWell's associate editorial director. "So we recommend reframing your thinking and strategy. Instead, focus on all the foods you should eat more of for a healthy heart—fruits and veggies, lean protein (including plant-based protein, like beans), healthy fats, calcium-rich dairy items and flavorful spice blends. By filling your plate with these foods, you'll naturally eat less sodium and saturated fat—without even thinking about it."

A mixture of eating well and getting active—another item on the list of seven—can help you try to lose weight, if you need to. We have plenty of high-fiber, low-calorie recipes that can help you hit those goals, plus some tips and tricks to make things easier. If getting active sounds like a struggle, try to take the pressure off—you can even lose weight walking around the neighborhood. (Getting active can also help you keep your blood sugar in check.)

Bottom Line

Stopping smoking, eating better, getting active, losing weight and managing your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar are all great, heart-healthy goals that can add years to your brain health. Eating better can be a major key to most of these goals—and the more of them you can hit, the better. Try eating meals that fit the DASH diet—a heart-healthy diet specifically designed to stop hypertension—to get a taste of what heart-healthy lifestyles are all about.