Keeping a healthy heart helps protect the brain from aging and keeps it sharp, a new study has found. The findings add to the growing body of evidence that a healthy heart is linked to a sharp mind.

In the new study, the researchers found that senior adults who met more of the goals in the American Heart Association's Life's Simple Seven had fewer dips in thinking and memory skills after six years. Life's Simple Seven is a template or guide on how to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Life's Simple Seven includes managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, staying physically active, eating healthy, losing weight or maintaining a healthy one and quitting smoking.

For the study, the researchers tracked more than 1,000 senior adults with an average age of 72 who lived in Northern Manhattan in New York City. Sixty-five percent of the participants were of Hispanic descent, 19 percent were black and 16 percent were white. The researchers analyzed how the participants closely reached each goal in Life's Simple Seven.

None of them managed to reach all seven. Below are the percentages on how they fared:

• Six goals met - 1 percent
• Five goals met - 4 percent
• Four goals met - 14 percent
• Three goals met - 30 percent
• Two goals met - 33 percent
• One goal met - 15 percent
• No goals met - 3 percent

When the study began, the senior adults' memory, brain-processing speed and thinking were tested. They found that the seniors who met more of the goals had faster brain processing speed at the beginning of the study. The association was strongest in the participants who didn't smoke, maintained a healthy weight and had normal blood sugar levels.

The researchers conducted the same tests on 722 participants after six years. They found that the more goals met meant less dips in brain processing speed. There was also less deterioration in the seniors' memory and executive function (time management, organization, focusing and other cognitive skills) when they reached more of the goals suggested.

Lead researcher Hannah Gardener said that the findings suggest the need for monitoring and addressing heart health factors to help patients strive to reach ideal levels. The results show that maintaining normal levels affects not just heart health but the brain health as well. Gardener is a neurology assistant scientist at the Miller School of Medicine in the University of Miami.

"The results suggest that vascular damage and metabolic processes may be important in cognitive performance and decline late in life," said Gardener. The findings were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association on March 16.

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