Harvard Heart Letter

A stronger heart may help keep your brain young

New findings link cardiovascular fitness to better thinking skills and memory in older people.

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Image: Thinkstock

Exercise that speeds up your heart rate and breathing keeps your heart and blood better cardiovascular fitness to a sharper brain is providing new clues about this heart-mind connection.

"It's not just about delivering more oxygen to the brain, although that's part of it," says Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Having a fit, healthy cardiovascular system also protects against vascular dementia, which happens when blood vessels feeding the brain are blocked or narrowed, leading to memory problems and other cognitive trouble.

In addition, exercise stimulates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, as well as the growth and survival of new brain cells, says Dr. Ratey. Brain imaging studies suggest that key brain areas responsible for thinking and memory are larger in people who exercise than in those who don't.

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