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How to have a big, healthy brain

People who follow healthy heart behaviors as young adults have bigger, healthier brains in midlife

A hand points to brain scan images.

CHICAGO - What’s good for the heart is also good for the brain. Individuals who had better cardiovascular health in young adulthood had larger brain volume and less abnormal brain tissue (relative to their total head size) in middle adulthood, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

Scientists looked at body weight, smoking status, regular physical activity, healthy diet, blood cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure — measures determining cardiovascular health by the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 metric.

“The study shows your cardiovascular health in young adulthood is related to your brain health later in life,” said lead investigator Michael Bancks, a postdoctoral fellow in preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Anyone can make these changes at a young age to protect their brain health in middle age.”

The paper was published July 19 in Neurology.

There is a growing understanding of the connection between the health of the heart and the head. Previous research has shown better cardiovascular health in young adulthood is associated with better cognitive function in middle adulthood. The Northwestern study is among the first to show how the combination of these seven health characteristics is related to brain structural health.

For the study, researchers measured whole brain volume, both normal (healthy) gray and white matter and abnormal (unhealthy) white matter. They took into account that individuals have different head sizes, which would influence brain tissue volume.

The data was gathered from 518 people with an average age of 51 at the time of brain volume measurement who had been followed for 30 years. Participants were initially screened for height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar and interviewed about diet and exercise. They then received follow-up exams every two to five years and had brain scans 25 years after starting the study.

Researchers scored each participant on how well he or she followed each of the seven steps to heart health at the start of the study and then 25 years later. They found people who had better heart health scores at the beginning of the study had a higher average brain volume as a percentage of their total head size in middle age. This was also true for people who had a better average of the beginning score and the score at year 25.

Every point lower in the Life’s Simple 7 score was roughly equivalent to one year of aging in the amount of brain shrinkage that occurred, Bancks said.

The data used for this study was pulled from the larger Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study.

The research was supported by grants T32HL007779 and T32HL06977 from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

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