Keeping your heart healthy may also keep your brain healthy as you age. Researchers from the University of Miami in Florida and Columbia University now have evidence that links an older person’s cognitive abilities to the quality of their heart health.

For the study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers followed the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple Seven ® guidelines of how to achieve a healthy heart. This included avoiding tobacco, committing to daily physical activity, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight, along with keeping within normal ranges for blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels. Researchers recruited 1,033 racially diverse participants, most of whom were of Hispanic descent. At the beginning of the study, participants, who were the average age of 72, were tested for memory, thinking, and brain processing speed.

Six years later, 722 participants repeated the same cognitive tests in order to see how their brain’s abilities progressed over time in relation to their heart health. They found those who were the closest to achieving the guidance from the American Heart Association also had better brain processing speed at the first assessment.

Participants’ cognitive abilities were best when they were a non-smoker, maintained a healthy weight, and stayed within a normal range for glucose levels. In the second round of testing, those with the greatest amount of heart health factors experienced less of an overall decline in processing speed and memory. Participants’ executive function also benefited, which is an area of the brain that provides a greater level of focusing, time management, and other cognitive skills.

"Achieving the health metrics is associated with a reduced risk of strokes and heart attacks, even among the elderly,” said the study's lead author Hannah Gardener, an assistant scientist in neurology at the Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, in a statement. “And the finding that they may also impact cognitive, or brain function underscores the importance of measuring, monitoring and controlling these seven factors by patients and physicians."

This isn’t the first time the heart- and brain-health connection has been made. According to Dr. Ralph Sacco, the chief of neurology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, doctors have been uncovering more connections between the heart’s effects on the brain for years. Sacco said it goes beyond using heart health to boost the brain, the opposite can also occur. Being physically inactive or obese — two risk factors that can lead to heart disease and stroke — contribute to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and cognitive dysfunction.

An unhealthy heart can’t pump blood through the body as efficiently. This includes reducing blood flow to the brain, and when the brain doesn’t get the oxygenated blood it needs to function, key neural connections tied to memory and processing begin to deteriorate.

“People often associate memory loss with Alzheimer’s disease, and they think it can’t be prevented or treated,” said Sacco, past president of the American Heart Association. “But controlling your risk factors for heart disease can make a difference in slowing its progression.”

Gardener and her team report that they need to conduct additional research in order to identify what age ranges, periods of time in a person’s life, and cardiovascular health factors and behaviors will have the greatest impact on cognitive impairment and what healthy choices a person can make to influence her cognitive performance and slow down decline over time.

Source: Gardener H, Wright CB, and Sacco RL, et al. Journal of the American Association . 2016.