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Healthier Heart, Healthier Brain

Older men and women who had the highest levels of cardiovascular health were at less risk of developing dementia than those who were less heart healthy, according to a new analysis. Those with the highest levels of cardiovascular health also had slower rates of cognitive decline than their less healthy peers. The findings underscore that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

Researchers studied more than 6,600 older French women and men, most in their 70s, who were in general good health. They assessed their heart health using the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” tool, which assesses overall heart and blood vessel health using seven measures. “These measures have one unique thing in common: any person can make these changes, the steps are not expensive to take and even modest improvements to your health will make a big difference,” the heart association says. The 7 measures are:

  1. Manage blood pressure. People should strive to keep their blood pressure at 120/80 or below to minimize strain on the heart, arteries and kidneys and lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.
  2. Control cholesterol. Strive for a total cholesterol level below 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood. High cholesterol levels can lead to the buildup of plaques in the arteries, raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  3. Reduce blood sugar. Strive for a fasting glucose level below 100 milligrams per deciliter of blood. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage organs throughout the body.
  4. Get active. Regular physical activity is critical for overall good health and increases the length and quality of your life.
  5. Eat better. A heart-healthy diet can have benefits for the heart and blood vessels and other organs. Eat fish twice a week or more, and fruits and vegetables [at least] three times a day.
  6. Lose weight. A body mass index of 18 to 25 is considered healthy. A lower weight reduces blood pressure and has benefits for heart, bones, lungs and blood vessels.
  7. Stop smoking. Not smoking is one of the best things you can do.

The researchers followed the subjects over an average period of eight years, giving them tests to evaluate their thinking and memory skills every two or three years. Over an average period of eight years, they found that 745 of them, or about 11 percent, had developed Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

Among those who had achieved zero, one or two of the Simple 7 measures, 12.7 percent had developed dementia. Among those who had achieved three or four of the measures, 10. 7 percent developed dementia. And among those who had achieved five, six or all seven of the measure, only 7.9 percent developed dementia.

Each new measure achieved reduced the risk of developing dementia by about 10 percent. “You don’t have to be perfect, but each time you add a factor you reduce your risk,” said the lead author, Cécilia Samieri, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Bordeaux.

Even when dementia was not present, those who had achieved fewer measures also showed faster declines in memory and thinking skills than those who had achieved more of them.

In a commentary accompanying the study, the authors conclude: “Available evidence indicates that to achieve a lifetime of robust brain health free of dementia, it is never too early or too late to strive for attainment of ideal cardiovascular health. Avoid smoking, eat a healthy diet, by physically active, maintain normal weight, and keep blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and glucose-insulin levels low. Given the aging population, this positive health message is important to communicate to all members of society.”

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.

Sources: Cécilia Samieri, PhD; Marie-Cécile Perier, MSc; Bamba Gaye, PhD; et al: “Association of Cardiovascular Health Level in Older Age With Cognitive Decline and Incident Dementia.”JAMA August 21, 2018

Jeffrey L. Saver, MD; Mary Cushman, MD, MSc: “Striving for Ideal Cardiovascular and Brain Health: It Is Never Too Early or Too Late.” JAMA August 21,2018

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