A new study has shown that heart health plays a role in decreasing the risk of dementia in the elderly. According to the researchers, those with optimal heart health had the lowest risk of developing dementia. Blood flows from the heart to the brain, but as we age, blood vessels can narrow and harden.
This decreases blood flow and increases a person’s risk for heart attacks, strokes, and cognitive decline. This narrowing and hardening of the blood vessels, called atherosclerosis, can be decreased by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.
The focus of the new study was to see how maintaining a healthy lifestyle to optimize heart health will affect the risk of dementia the elderly face. The researchers used seven recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA) as criteria for defining optimal heart health: not smoking; regularly exercising; routinely eating fish, fruits, and vegetables; avoiding gaining excess weight; and keeping healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.
Better Heart Health Lowers Risk of Dementia
The study had an average follow-up period of 8.5 years. Participants were 6,626 adults, aged 65 or older, who had not been diagnosed with dementia at the outset of the study. By the end of the study, there were 745 new cases of dementia, which made up about 11 percent of the participants. Their results showed that those who followed the heart health recommendations had a lower likelihood of developing dementia by the end of the study.
“While achieving the seven cardiovascular health factors at optimal levels is certainly the ideal target, this study shows that any additional factor at optimal level decreases the risk of dementia,” said study leader Cecilia Samieri. Each additional factor the participants showed resulted in a 10 percent lower risk of dementia. They also noted that adhering to more than one of the heart health recommendations was related to higher scores on the cognitive tests, which indicates better brain health too.
Even those who did not manage to follow all seven of the recommendations still benefited from improving their lifestyles in some way. “From a pragmatic and public health perspective, promoting change in cardiovascular health from poor to intermediate levels may be more achievable and have a greater population-level effect than the more challenging change from poor to optimal levels,” Samieri said.
The researchers recommend doing what you can to improve your heart health, but try not to become overwhelmed by tackling all of the recommendations at once. Any efforts toward a healthier lifestyle will have beneficial outcomes.
The results of the study show only a correlational relationship between following recommendations for a healthy lifestyle and improvements to heart health and a decrease in the risk of dementia. The mechanisms behind this association remain unknown and future studies will be needed to fully assess the effects of heart health on dementia and vice versa and whether the healthy lifestyle recommendations are truly responsible for the changes noted in the study participants.
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