The same risk factors that contribute to making heart disease the leading cause of death worldwide also impact the rising prevalence of brain disease, including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to the American Heart Association’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics.  

Experts say that maintaining a healthy weight, managing your blood pressure and following other heart-healthy lifestyle behaviors can also support  good brain health. Optimal brain health includes the functional ability to perform all the diverse tasks for which the brain is responsible, including movement, perception, learning and memory, communication, problem solving,  judgement, decision making and emotion.

Cognitive decline and dementia are often seen following stroke and cerebrovascular disease and indicate a decline in brain health.  Conversely, studies show maintaining good vascular health is associated with healthy aging and retained cognitive function.

Current data collected brings to light the strong correlations between heart health and brain health – what’s good  for the heart is thus good for the brain. One of the major contributors to finding ways to curb heart disease died last week.  Jeremiah Stamler was a cardiovascular specialist  who was at the forefront of studies that identified risk factors for heart disease and ways to prevent it. He personified his work and lived to be 102.

Jeremiah Stamler

Jeremiah Stamler was born on Oct. 27, 1919, in Brooklyn and grew up in West Orange, N.J.  His father George, was a dentist, and his mother, Rose, a teacher had emigrated from Russia.  

Jeremiah received a Bachelor of Science from Columbia University, and earned his medical degree from Long Island College of Medicine (now SUNY Downstate Health Services University) in Brooklyn in 1943. He served in the Army in Bermuda as a radiologist before beginning his career at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, where he worked with Dr. Louis Katz, a top cardiology researcher.  

In his studies he focused on eating a healthy diet, not smoking and reducing salt intake to reduce the likelihood of heart disease and strokes. His advice is commonplace today but not widely accepted decades ago.  

He was one of the pioneer researchers in the causes of heart artery disease and largely responsible for the remarkable decline in coronary heart disease and stroke that occurred in the U.S. over the past 20 or 30 years.   

According to the president of the American Heart Association,  Stamler was part of the generation of scientists who put the traditional risk factors for heart disease on the map. He did the studies to show that smoking, diabetes, obesity and cholesterol drive most heart attacks. One of his studies involved more than 300,000 people, and studied the ideal weight, cholesterol and physical activity to achieve cardiovascular health — a set of standards the American Heart Association adopted.  

In another study, with about 10,000 people worldwide, Stamler showed that high salt was one of the quantitatively important, preventable mass exposures causing the unfavorable population-wide blood pressure pattern that is a major risk for epidemic cardiovascular disease.  

During his lifetime, Stamler was prolific, he published nearly 700 peer-reviewed papers and wrote 22 books and monographs, including “Your Heart Has Nine Lives” and “The Hypertension Handbook.”  

Asked in 2005 about his longevity, Stamler told the New York Times about the time his father changed his bill of fare, from meat and potatoes, to lots of fruits and vegetables a prelude to the Mediterranean diet. He also exercised a minimum of one hour every day.

The Mediterranean Diet

According to Gina Kolata, writing for the New York Times, about 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables and even drink wine with meals.  

These findings, recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were based on the first major clinical trial to measure the diet’s effect on heart risks. The magnitude of the diet’s benefits startled experts and the study was ended early, after almost five years, because the results were so clear it was unethical to continue.  

Until this study the evidence that the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of heart disease was weak, based mostly on studies showing that people from Mediterranean countries seemed to have lower rates of heart disease — a pattern that could have been attributed to factors other than diet.

Final Thoughts

The mainstays of the diet consist of at least three servings a day of fruits, at least two servings of vegetables, fish at least three times a week, and beans and lentils at least three times weekly.  Eat white meat instead of red and have at least seven glasses of wine a week with meals. Consume lots of olive oil, about a quarter cup walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts.  Avoid commercially made cookies, cakes and pastries and limit consumption of dairy products and processed meats.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.