It’s no secret that fried chicken—along with gravy-soaked biscuits, cheesy grits, chicken fried steak and just about every other beloved Southern cooking tradition—is bad for your health.And new research suggests it may make you lose your mind, too.Eight south eastern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee—were labeled the “Stroke Belt” in 1965, when they were first recorded to have a 50 percent higher stroke mortality rate than the rest of the United States.Now, a study by researchers at The University of Alabama draws a decisive link between stroke incidence and cognitive decline (mental breakdown ranging from memory loss to dementia). The study found that residents of the Stroke Belt states who were over age 45 experienced an 18 percent higher incidence of cognitive decline than those in the rest of the United States.Though they stopped short of blaming lifestyle factors, the researchers did draw a dotted line from cognitive impairment to “risk factors for both stroke and cognitive impairment, such as hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease and metabolic syndrome.”There’s an absolute link between diet, heart disease, stroke and cognitive decline, says YouBeauty Wellness Advisor Beth Ricanati, M.D. “Your vascular system is like a tree,” she explains. “There is one main network. If you clog your arteries via diet it affects your entire body.”Just like heart disease and stroke, vascular dementia is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries. “It’s similar to arterial sclerosis in the heart,” says Dr. Ricanati. “The risk factors for heart disease can bring on mini strokes.”Correlational data supports this link: Not only is the Stroke Belt the capital of dementia, but according analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s also ground zero for diabetes and obesity.

National Institutes of Health via Wikipedia CommonsState map of the United States showing the Stroke Belt, a region with higher stroke incidences.

Five of the Stroke Belt states have the highest prevalence of obesity in the nation. Thirty percent or more of people living in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee are obese. And earlier this year the CDC mapped the prevalence of diabetes in the U.S. by county. The areas with the highest incidence also overlapped with the Stroke Belt.Want to lower risk your risk of all of the above? Eat a heart-healthy diet, exercise and manage your stress.“If you can modify your diet then you’re helping your entire body,” says Dr. Ricanati. “Most people don’t realize how lifestyle-driven this aspect of your health is—if you can control your blood pressure you’re directly helping your brain.”OPINION: Little Things You Can Do Today for Better HealthIt’s all about baby steps. You can become healthier today by eating a piece of fruit instead of potato chips, and taking a walk around the block.That is, if you remember.