The surprising link between a healthy heart and dementia

The surprising link between a healthy heart and dementia


As the famous saying goes, “you are what you eat”. It’s easy to write it off as an old-fashioned saying devoid of scientific truth, but it is actually somewhat of an aphorism. That’s because modern-day science says that we really ARE what we eat.

While we all know that foods high in saturated fats, for example, can increase our risk of coronary heart disease, what’s not as well-known is the role of heart health in the development of dementia. In this article, we’re going to discuss the link between having a healthy heart and the effect this has on the risk of developing dementia – and what you can do about it.

A new study into heart disease and dementia

While it has often been assumed that heart disease increases the risk of dementia (such as vascular dementia), a recent French study from 2018 seemed to clarify the theory that it can play a part in all dementia cases. The University of Bordeaux’s study over 16 years looked at 6,626 adults over the age of 65 living in three different French cities. Participants were characterised by whether or not they fit with seven healthy heart characteristics. The researchers followed up on the participants’ lives every couple of years.

The seven characteristics (using the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” recommendations) were:

  • Not smoking
  • BMI below 25
  • Regularly physically active
  • Eating at least three fruit and veg a day and fish twice a week or more
  • Low cholesterol levels (less than 5.2mmol/L)
  • Low blood sugar levels (fasting blood glucose levels of less than 5.5mmol/L without diabetes treatment)
  • Healthy blood pressure levels (less than 120/80mmHg without high blood pressure treatment)

Initially, they found that 7% had at least five of the 7 healthy heart characteristics, 57% had 3 or 4, and 36% had 0 to 2 of the characteristics. 11% of the participants developed dementia during the study – and the study confirmed that the people with more healthy heart characteristics were the least likely to develop dementia.

The researchers determined that a person’s chances of developing dementia reduced by 10% for every one of the 7 healthy heart characteristics that they had. While any study of this kind has the potential for some flaws in the results, such as not considering other factors outside of the characteristics, the results are clear: those with healthier hearts have less chance of developing dementia.

So what does this mean for older people, dementia and even for those living with dementia?

Negating the risk of dementia

It’s worth pointing out how many of the 7 characteristics relate to our diets. Except for perhaps smoking, all of the characteristics can be variably linked to what we eat and drink. So for those worried about developing dementia, it’s clear that your diet should be of utmost importance as a healthy diet has been linked with a healthy brain. For example, the Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet have both been found to positively affect the development of dementia.

But what about those who already live with dementia? There is limited evidence that diets with high intakes of fruit and veg protect the brain from free radical chemicals that do oxidative damage to the brain neurons (or brain cells) which researchers suggest plays a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. It’s thought that it’s the antioxidants from these foods that act as the shield. Additionally, there have also been protective qualities found in the omega-3 fatty acids of fish as well as in the spice turmeric (because of its main ingredient curcumin).

It’s within reason to believe that the same dietary approaches to prevent dementia would also offer benefits to people living with dementia too.

The MIND diet

At Better Healthcare, we work with clients living with various conditions and chronic illnesses. Our specialist care team receive training on nutrition and diet due to their role in helping clients around the house with meal preparation and cooking. As such, we encourage clients to live a healthier lifestyle to ensure that they are as physically and mentally healthy as they can be. One of the ways in which we do this is by encouraging them to take on diets that could help improve their health.

Two such diets include the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. However, the two can be combined to make the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet. The DASH diet focuses on helping with blood pressure to reduce the risk of circulatory and heart diseases by reducing salt intake, whereas the Mediterranean diet focuses on the likes of fish, pulses, whole grains and fruit and veg. Together, under the MIND diet, they make quite the team – helping to keep your heart healthy while lowering the chances of brain function decline due to ageing.

One study of nearly 1,000 people lead researchers to conclude that those who stuck to the MIND diet had brains that were 7 and a half years younger than those who did not stick to the diet. Staples of the brain-boosting diet include:

  • Leafy green veg (examples include cabbage, spinach, kale, spring greens and salad leaves): 1+ serving(s) per day
  • Other veg: 1+ serving(s) per day
  • Berries (examples include strawberries and blueberries): 2+ servings per week
  • Wholegrains: 3+ servings per day
  • Nuts: 1 serving on most days
  • Beans & lentils: 3+ servings per week
  • Chicken & turkey: 2+ servings per week
  • Fish: 1+ serving(s) per week
  • Wine: maximum of 1 small glass per day
  • Olive oil: as your main cooking oil or fat

Five other foods that boost your brain’s grey matter

For those who aren’t keen to change their current diet to either the Mediterranean, DASH or MIND diets, here are also some recommended foods that are known to boost your grey matter.

1. Eggs

Packed full of vitamin B that is said to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment, eggs are a great choice to keep your brain healthy. One study on the impact of vitamin B-rich foods found that older people with cognitive impairment had significantly less brain shrinkage compared to their placebo counterparts. For those living with dementia, eggs (and other B-rich foods such as chicken, fish, eggs and leafy green veg) are a simple, easy addition to everyday diets.

2. Sage

An easy addition to anything you’re cooking, sage has been linked with improving memory and concentration. Make sure to add it at the end of your cooking to ensure the beneficial oils are protected.

3. Red peppers

A vitamin C deficiency has long been linked with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, so fruit and veg like red peppers, blackcurrants and oranges are great sources of vitamin C and are quite easy to add to your diet. Vitamin C is also said to reduce anxiety and stress levels too.

4. Pumpkin seeds

Zinc is valued for its ability to boost both thinking skills and memory abilities – and pumpkin seeds are perhaps the boost source for this vital mineral. B-rich pumpkin seeds are also great sources of magnesium and tryptophan – making them a great little snack to boost serotonin and mood levels.

5. Tomatoes

As we mentioned before, free radicals damage your brain’s cells – but thankfully tomatoes can help protect against this damage, making them a vital ingredient in any fight against dementia. Why not serve them with some olive oil to hit those harmful chemicals with a double whammy?

Five foods that don’t boost your brain’s grey matter

Everything has an opposite – and so if there is food that is healthy for our minds, it holds that there is food that isn’t. Our diets in the ‘western’ world are often high in the likes of red meat, refined carbs and saturated fats and, consequently, low in whole grains, fruit and veg. This diet has been associated with a speedier route to mental decline and, as such, here are five foods to reduce the intake of or avoid if you want to protect your brain:

  • Red meat: no more than 4 times/week
  • Fried/fast food: no more than 1 time/week
  • Cheese: no more than 1 time/week
  • Butter: no more than 15g/day
  • Sweets & pastries: no more than 5 times/week

Better Healthcare promotes healthy diets

Nutrition is an important part of what our specialist carers and healthcare assistants focus on at Better Healthcare. We help clients across the country with their nutrition at home by preparing meals, catering to special diets, supervising or assisting with feeding and by filling in food charts to ensure that dietary and fluid intake is being monitored.

Our carers work with clients living with dementia to ensure that they can continue with their everyday lives with as little or as much assistance as is required around the home.

To learn more about our services and how we can help you or your loved one living with dementia, give us a call on 0800 668 1234 or get in touch with your closest Better Healthcare Services office today.