The Intrinsic Relationship of Brain, Heart and Mind

February 2020

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Research and clinical observations are discovering major linkages between diseases of the brain and heart, including how they develop and progress.

Your brain, heart and mind are intrinsically connected. They depend on one another. When one of them acquires a disease, scientists believe the others are also at increased risk.

When you consider that heart disease and disorders of the brain and mind are the leading causes of mortality and disability in Canada, these connections make sense.

Research and clinical observations are discovering major linkages between diseases of the brain and heart, including how they develop and progress. For example, patients with heart failure are at increased risk for depression, cognitive impairment and sleep disorders. Yet despite this, brain and heart conditions are frequently treated clinically today as separate, siloed entities, even when co-occurring in the same patient.

Dr. Jodi Edwards hopes to change all that.

“The medical community is really starting to recognize the importance of brain co-morbidity for heart disease and vice-versa,” she told The Beat. “There’s an emerging understanding of how deeply connected the brain and heart really are. Understanding these differences can help care providers develop personalized approaches for treatment in these vulnerable populations.”

Dr. Jodi Edwards, PhD, University of Ottawa Heart Institute
Dr. Edwards is a cardiovascular epidemiologist whose research program involves risk assessment and predictive modeling for the heart-brain interface, with a specific focus on the identification of novel cardiac markers of stroke and dementia risk and women’s heart and brain health.

A scientist and epidemiologist, Dr. Edwards was recruited in December of 2017 to lead a new program at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (UOHI) that investigates brain, heart and mind linkages, a new major strategic priority for research and innovation at UOHI.

Now the director of the Brain and Heart Nexus Program, Dr. Edwards and her research team work with clinical and administrative data from population-based databases to evaluate the contributions of unexplored cardiac risk factors, including physiological changes associated with early changes in the size, shape, structure, and function of the heart, to clinical outcomes in individuals at high risk of stroke, atrial fibrillation, cognitive decline and dementia.

Dr. Edwards’ program has three fundamental pillars:

  • Risk prediction: to develop unique risk prediction models that integrate markers of heart, brain and mind risk to identify those most in danger of adverse cardiovascular outcomes.
  • Comorbid disease: to investigate cardiovascular comorbidity and its impact on short- and long-term patient outcomes.
  • Women’s heart and brain health: to develop sex-specific risk profiles and examine sex differences in treatment and outcome to improve women’s heart and brain health.

Dr. Edwards and her Brain and Heart Nexus team, in partnership with Sunnybrook Research Institute and The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, are currently in the throes of a multi-phased research study, called CardiacDoc, which she hopes will soon support the development of a heart-brain care model at the Heart Institute.

“CardiacDoc will enable us to immediately detect and better treat heart failure patients with comorbid depression, cognitive decline or sleep issues,” said Edwards. “The study will also support a new model of integrated multidisciplinary cardiovascular care, which will distinguish UOHI as a leader in comprehensive and individualized cardiac care.” 

For now, Dr. Edwards’ message to patients is simply one of awareness.

“It’s important for patients to understand that the same risk factors that put a person at risk for heart disease also put them at risk for stroke and dementia,” she said. “This is particularly critical for women, who may have unique and under-recognized risks.”

The silver lining is that if patients make lifestyle and treatment modifications that will benefit them in terms of their heart disease, then they’re getting double the benefit; they’re also going to be preventing brain disease.

“Awareness is key, and it is important for patients with these risk factors to understand the whole picture and talk to their doctors about both heart and brain diseases.”

Dr. Edwards’ research has been published extensively in leading clinical journals including the Journal of the American Heart Association, Stroke, Neurology, and Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and her work has received national media attention. She is an active member of the Expert Advisory Group for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Alliance.

Dr. Edwards is an invited speaker scheduled to present as part of the upcoming Canadian Women’s Heart Health Summit, April 2-3 at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa, ON.

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