- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A good walk, a sensible diet and pleasant company: What’s good for the heart is also good for the head, according to an extensive report released yesterday by the National Institutes of Health, which is ramping up its efforts to keep Americans’ brains in fine fettle over time.

“Developing strategies to preserve cognitive and emotional health as we grow older is a major public health goal,” said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, part of a research consortium that includes three federal agencies, Indiana University and the Alzheimer’s Association.

The report offers updates on the latest clinical treatments for brain disease and dysfunction. But the research also is going in the “opposite direction — looking at what works to preserve brain health.”

Simple emotional well-being and a reasonable, upbeat lifestyle can play a protective role, the researchers say.

“We set up the Cognitive and Emotional Health Project in recognition of changed thinking,” said Story C. Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The research — a “new paradigm” — is focused on “health rather than dysfunction,” he said.

Based on data gleaned from 36 large, ongoing studies, the researchers identified 40 factors that keep the brain healthy — with distinct benefits for the heart as well. The straightforward, preventive strategies could reduce health care costs across the board.

Controlling blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, diabetes, smoking — risk factors for cardiovascular disease — also can play a decisive role in preventing mental decline, memory loss and dementia.

Three of the studies also found that elders who exercise are less likely to experience cognitive decline — “a finding of great public health importance because physical activity is relatively inexpensive, has few negative consequences and is accessible to most elders,” the report said.

A contented, connected life also is a bonus, deemed a “protective factor” in the research. Both brain and heart benefit from emotional support from friends and family, socializing and learning new skills or renewing education. Social disengagement and depression in younger years are associated with poorer cognitive and emotional health later in life.

The researchers, however, know the report is only a first step.

“Cognitive decline and emotional stress in older people involve a number of physiological and psychological processes going on at the same time,” noted Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

“This report highlights the need to better understand this interrelatedness if we’re going to devise effective ways to maintain brain health,” he added.

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