Keeping your heart healthy now may prevent dementia later

Looking after heart health could help protect against cognitive decline as we age, according to new research. (Rawpixel pic)

TIANJIN: New research has found that having a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease appears to be linked with an increased risk of cognitive decline, suggesting that looking after heart health could also help protect against dementia.

Carried out by researchers at Tianjin Medical University, Tianjin, China, the new study looked at data gathered from 1,588 dementia-free participants with an average age of 79.5.

The participants had all taken part in the Rush Memory and Ageing Project for 21 years, which looks at chronic conditions associated with ageing, with a focus on cognitive and motor function decline and risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The participants’ Framingham General Cardiovascular Risk Scores (FGCRS), which assess an individual’s future risk of cardiovascular disease, was calculated at the start of the study, and subjects were categorised into the lowest, middle and highest groups according to their heart disease risk.

Every year during the study the participants also had their episodic memory (memory of everyday events), semantic memory (long-term memory), working memory (short-term memory), visuospatial ability (ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects) and perceptual speed (ability to accurately and completely compare letters, numbers, objects, pictures or patterns) assessed using 19 tests and given an overall score.

The findings, published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, showed that the participants with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease also showed a faster decline in their episodic memory, working memory and perceptual speed.

In addition, after looking at MRI data for a subset of the participants, the team also found that a higher FGCRS was associated with smaller volumes of hippocampus and cortical grey matter and smaller total brain volume.

The researchers explained that decreases in hippocampal and grey matter are typical markers of Alzheimer’s disease.

The team note that previous research has also linked cardiovascular disease risk factors with smaller volumes of specific brain regions, including white matter, grey matter and hippocampus, but findings have been inconsistent.

However, they add that the new study suggests that looking after heart health could also help improve cognitive health later in life.

“In the absence of effective treatments for dementia, we need to monitor and control cardiovascular risk burden as a way to maintain patient’s cognitive health as they age,” said Weili Xu, PhD.

“Given the progressive increase in the number of dementia cases worldwide, our findings have both clinical and public health relevance.”