You may have heard the saying, “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” A new study suggests that may be especially true for women. Mayo Clinic scientists reported that women with cardiovascular disease — or its major risk factors — were at much greater risk for declines in their memory and cognitive skills during midlife than men with these conditions.

Conversely, heart-healthy habits dramatically reduce risk for cognitive decline and dementia in men and women, as well as offering powerful protection against heart attacks, strokes, and chronic diseases. Here is a closer look at the heart-brain connection, with key takeaways from the BaleDoneen Method.

How was the study conducted?

Published in the journal Neurology in January, the study included 1,857 men and women in their 50s and 60s who were participating in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. At the start of the study, they received nine tests to evaluate their memory, language, executive function and spatial skills, with the results combined to yield a global cognitive score.

Participants’ medical records were checked for cardiovascular (CV) conditions (such as heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, peripheral artery disease and arrhythmias) and CV risk factors (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides and past or current smoking).

The volunteers, all of whom were free of dementia at the start of the study, were tracked for up to eight years, with the cognitive testing repeated every 15 months. The goal of the study was to look for associations between midlife cardiovascular health and mental acuity, and to find out if these associations differed in men and women.

What did the study reveal about men and women’s risk for cognitive decline?

Overall, 79 percent of the participants had at least one CV disorder or risk factor. Men had more risk factors than women: 83 percent for men vs. 75 percent for women.

Yet almost all the CV conditions and factors studied had a much greater impact on women’s brain function than men. For example, the annual decline in global cognitive function was more than twice as great in women with heart disease than in their male counterparts.

Moreover, the team found that diabetes and high levels of blood fats (such as cholesterol and triglycerides) were linked to declines in language skills in women, but not men. However, congestive heart failure was only associated with declining language skills in men.

While the study did not prove that cardiovascular conditions and risk factors cause cognitive decline, greater understanding of sex differences in its development is important to enhance the health of middle-aged adults, lead study author Michelle Meilke, PhD stated in a news release. “Thus, while all men and women should be treated for cardiovascular conditions and risk factors in midlife, additional monitoring of women may be needed as a potential means of preventing cognitive decline.”

What are the best ways for women to protect their heart and brain health?

Also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD), heart disease remains underdiagnosed and undertreated in women. The BaleDoneen Method is striving to change that by empowering women with the facts they need to take charge of their health TODAY. Follow these crucial steps to protect your heart and brain health — and please share them with women you care about.

  1. Understand the facts. Every 40 seconds, someone in the US has a heart attack or stroke, and every 65 seconds someone develops dementia. The culprit is CVD — and rates are soaring in younger, seemingly healthy people. Another alarming fact: 64% of women who die suddenly from a heart attack were not previously aware that they had CVD, which typically develops silently over many years. That means early detection and optimal treatment are the keys to prevention. As discussed more fully in the new BaleDoneen book, Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain: The Personalized Path to Protect Your Memory, Prevent Heart Attacks and Strokes, and Avoid Chronic Illness, keeping your arteries healthy helps prevent many other devastating or life-threatening conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart failure, diabetes, vision loss, and chronic kidney disease.
  2. Be aware of female-specific red flags for cardiovascular risk. Alert your healthcare provider if you have any of these red flags that warn of increased risk for CVD: polycystic ovary disease (PCOS); lupus, psoriasis or other autoimmune disorders; migraine headache with aura; a history of preeclampsia or gestational diabetes during pregnancy; depression; a high stress level; rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory disorders; or bleeding gums. Any of these red flags — or a family history of heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes — suggests that you would benefit from a complete BaleDoneen Method assessment of your cardiovascular health.
  3. Recognize that risk-factor analysis may leave women dangerously unprotected. A recent study, which analyzed survey data from women, primary care providers and cardiologists, reported that healthcare providers are less likely to assess women’s heart health during annual checkups than men’s, and they frequently underestimate women’s cardiovascular risk as compared to that of risk-matched male patients. Unlike standard care, the BaleDoneen Method doesn’t rely solely on risk factor analysis. We also use laboratory and imaging tests, such as a painless 15-minute, FDA-approved ultrasound scan, to directly check for hidden signs of arterial disease.
  4. Get checked for root causes of heart disease. Root causes are conditions that can lead to plaque buildup and inflammation in your arteries: the dangerous duo that can spark a heart attack or stroke. One of the most common is insulin resistance, the root cause of 73% of heart attacks in women and nearly all cases of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is also strongly linked to increased risk for memory loss. A recent peer-reviewed BaleDoneen paper has been called “landmark” because it was the first to identify oral bacteria from gum disease as a contributing cause of CVD.
  5.  A healthy lifestyle lowers your risk for CVD by 88%. Protect your heart health by following these lifestyle habits: Exercise at least 22 minutes a day with aerobic workouts, after checking with your healthcare provider to make these activities are right for you; avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and exposure to all forms of nicotine; reduce the stress in your life (practicing mindfulness is a great way to dispel tension); and average 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Another powerful benefit of lifting your lifestyle to the next level is a 35% lower risk for memory loss!
  6. Healthy gums help prevent heart attacks! If you haven’t seen your dental provider lately, you’re missing out on key screenings and treatments that could help you avoid dangerous health threats, including heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, some forms of cancer and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease. All of these disorders, and many others, have been linked to poor oral health in recent studies. In a recent study of older adults, those who hadn’t seen a dentist in the previous year had a 50% higher death rate during the study period than those who went two or more times annually. Also check out our easy four-step plan to optimize your oral and arterial health and our top ten heart disease prevention tips for women.
  7. Save a life. Tell a friend and teach a friend what you learned here today. You could save a life!