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Carrying Heart Risks in Your 20s May Presage Brain Risks Decades Later

It’s never too early to start thinking about brain health.

Young adults with obesity, high blood pressure or high blood sugar levels were more likely to experience thinking and memory problems decades later than their healthier peers, according to a new analysis. The study found that people in their 20s and 30s with these risk factors for heart issues were also at increased risk for brain problems later in life.

“These results are striking and suggest that early adulthood may be a critical time for the relationship between these health issues and late-life cognitive skills,” said study author Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco “It’s possible that treating or modifying these health issues in early adulthood could prevent or reduce problems with thinking skills in later life.”

For this very large scale and long-lasting study, published in the journal Neurology, researchers pooled data from four long-running studies involving more than 15,000 people. They ranged in age from 18 to 95 and had tests of memory skills every one to two years. Researchers followed them for 10 to 30 years.

The researchers found that men and women with obesity (having a body mass index exceeding 30), high blood pressure (a top number above 140) or high fasting blood glucose levels (over 100 mg/dL) — all risk factors for heart disease and diabetes — were at increased risk of memory and thinking problems later in life. Having these problems at a younger age, in your 20s or 30s, posed the greatest risk of cognitive decline with advancing age. Having another heart risk factor, high cholesterol, at a young age was not tied to cognitive problems later in life, the study found.

“With more young people developing diabetes and obesity in early adulthood,” along with heart health issues that often go undiagnosed and untreated, “this could have significant public health implications for cognitive health in late life,” Dr. Yaffe said.

The study showed only an association between heart health issues in early life and cognitive problems later in life, so it? could not probe cause and effect. But many earlier studies have shown that cardiovascular risk factors in midlife, including hypertension, diabetes and being overweight, increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia later in life.

This study suggests that heart risks even much earlier in life, starting as early as in young adulthood, may be particularly damaging to the brain, and to the aging brain, over time. Modifying these risk factors, through regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet, for example, may carry a lot of benefit for preventing memory loss and dementia years down the road.

“Taken together, these studies suggest that cardiovascular risk factors in young adulthood have an important downstream relationship with cognition many decades later,” the authors wrote. “Young adulthood represents a time that may lend itself to intervention and an opportunity for widespread public health education regarding the importance of heart health to brain health.”

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University. 

Source: Kristine Yaffe, MD; Eric Vittinghoff, PhD; Tina Hoang, MSPH; et al: “Cardiovascular Risk Factors Across the Life Course and Cognitive Decline: A Pooled Cohort Study.” Neurology, March 17, 2021

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