A study conducted in 2019 by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an AARP-sponsored independent collaborative of experts in their fields, concluded that keeping heart and blood vessels healthy reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The study showed that risks associated with cardiovascular disease like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Following are steps you can take to improve your cardiovascular and cognitive outcomes: 

Effects of sugar on the brain. Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, fruit juices, sports drinks and specialty coffee beverages often contain high fructose corn syrup, a high glycemic index sugar. This means that the sugar is rapidly absorbed by the gut, causing the body to produce a surge of insulin, a hormone that allows our body’s cells to either use or store sugar. Repeated consumption of excessive sugars can contribute to obesity and, over time, the body may lose its ability to produce enough insulin, leading to diabetes.

In addition, excess sugar in the bloodstream interacts with proteins to form harmful compounds known as AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, that contribute to inflammation of blood vessels and other body tissues. Over time, chronic inflammation leads to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and degenerative brain diseases. AGEs are also consumed in our diet when we eat fried foods, meats cooked at high temperature and dairy products.

Processed (factory-milled) grains are stripped of fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients during manufacturing, leaving behind simple carbohydrates or starches. Starches are absorbed in the gut very rapidly, just like sugars, and when consumed repeatedly, can lead to similar chronic inflammation and weight-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity—all risk factors that can impact your heart and brain health. 

Foods for a healthy brain and heart. Limiting refined sugar and processed foods in your daily diet and focusing on fresh, whole plant-based foods can help slow or prevent inflammation and cognitive decline and maximize brain function.

Whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and legumes provide complex carbohydrates and are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which nourish our brain and other organs. 

The fiber present in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains slows the intestinal absorption of sugar, creating less of an insulin surge and a lower risk of developing diabetes and inflammation. Another important advantage of plant fiber is that it feeds your gut microbiome — the millions of microbacteria that live in your lower intestine. A healthy, diverse microbiome helps your immune system fight infections and some cancers and may help your brain to influence mood and cognitive activity.

Mediterranean diet and brain health. The Mediterranean diet is one of the planet’s healthiest plant-based options. Research has shown that it can help reduce cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, including dementia. Key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine include plant-sourced oils; fresh fruits and vegetables; nuts and seeds; protein-rich legumes; fiber-rich whole grains; and modest amounts of seafood, lean meats and dairy products. Studies show that a moderate adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with improvements in executive function and memory, and a lower rate of cognitive decline. 

Achieving a healthier brain and reducing your risk of developing dementia can be as easy as adopting the above-mentioned heart-healthy food choices. 

Alzheimers Coachella Valley is a community resource for dementia support and education. For more information, call (760) 776.3100 or visit www.cvalzheimers.org.

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