In a surprising finding, a new British study shows that a low IQ is a stronger predictor of heart disease than any other traditional risk factor with the exception of smoking. The study, published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation, followed 1,145 Scottish men and women, approximately age 55, for over 20 years, recording their IQ, weight, education, occupation, income and physical activity and common heart risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and smoking habits.

While risk for heart disease was two times higher for volunteers engaging in low physical activity and about three times higher for those with high blood pressure or low income, people with lower IQs had a whopping four times greater risk of developing heart disease than those with higher IQs. Smokers were nearly six times more likely to suffer heart problems.

The study investigators said that there are "a number of plausible mechanisms" by which lower IQ scores could result in increased cardiovascular risk, including factors in early childhood that influence a low IQ, such as poor diet and repeated illness. They also suspect that people with lower IQs don't understand how lifestyle behaviors like smoking, drinking, lack of physical activity and obesity contribute to heart disease.

The study researchers also theorize that having a higher IQ may also mean that all neurological and physiological body systems, such as the brain, heart, liver, lungs and kidneys, operate more efficiently than they do in people with lower IQs. Future studies will need to be done to determine whether raising IQ levels with early life interventions, such as better diet, can affect heart disease risk.

Mind Games

Although you can't raise your basic IQ score, engaging in cognitive exercises and physical activity and eating well can help you use the IQ you have more efficiently-and help your heart.

  • Trying something new like learning to play an instrument or taking a language lesson can keep your brain active, slowing mental decline that comes with aging.
  • Exercise routines that involve both aerobic exercise and strength training helps reduce age-related decline in cognitive function. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise each day.
  • More and more studies are showing that diets containing whole grains, fish, vegetables, antioxidant-rich fruits like blueberries and strawberries and nuts containing alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid, such as walnuts, have beneficial effects on cognition, brain aging and heart disease. Reducing alcohol intake can also help. Scientists at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, found that heavy drinking-defined as more than 14 drinks a week-shrinks brains. To improve brain health, keep drinking to a minimum, less than seven drinks per week.