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Heart health and dementia: Is there a connection?

You know that taking care of your heart is critical, especially as you age.

Your risk for developing cardiovascular conditions, such as heart disease, naturally increases, which means it's your job to live a healthy lifestyle and break harmful habits. But have you considered how the health of your heart impacts your brain?

"Most people don't understand the connection between heart health and brain health, and as doctors we're learning more every day," said Ralph Sacco, M.D., chief of neurology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and former president of the American Heart Association. "New studies have shown that the risk factors that can lead to heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure, physical inactivity and obesity, also contribute to dementia, Alzheimer's disease, memory loss and cognitive dysfunction." 

One study in particular, published in JAMA Neurology found that cardiac disease may be linked to a heightened risk of developing nonamnestic mild cognitive impairment

The study
A collective group of researchers was curious to see if there was a correlation between cardiac disease and amnestic and nonamnestic mild cognitive impairment, both precursors of non-Alzheimer's dementia.

Researchers evaluated 2,719 participants using the Clinical Dementia Rating scale, neuropsychological testing and a neurological evaluation. All of the men and women were free of memory loss and cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. Over the course of the evaluation, researchers paid close attention to participants who developed cardiac disease. All 2,719 men and women were given a new brain assessment every 15 months.


All participants were free of memory loss at the beginning of the study.All participants were free of memory loss at the beginning of the study.

The results
Over the course of the cohort study, researchers found that 366 of the 1,450 participants without mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia at the beginning developed MCI. Researchers believe the occurrence of cardiac disease increased their risk of nonamnestic mild cognitive impairment (naMCI), but only in women. This type of decline is linked to vascular dementia, which causes issues with decision making and reasoning, but not memory loss.

In conclusion, the researchers found that cardiac disease is a risk factor for developing naMCI, more so for women than for men.

Heart health and dementia: What's the connection?
According to WebMD, vascular dementia occurs when blood doesn't flow properly to the brain. It makes things like decision making, navigating through a familiar neighborhood and coming up with the right words mid-sentence more difficult.

When someone develops cardiac disease, plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, which can then form blood clots. This makes it difficult for the blood to flow properly, which may reduce the chance of blood making its way to the brain as it should. That's why taking care of your heart is a critical factor in preventing dementia.

"By reducing your risk for cardiac disease, you can lessen your chance of developing dementia."

How to prevent heart disease and dementia
In order to reduce your risk for developing cognitive impairment, it's best to prioritize heart health, according to Rosebud Roberts, M.D., professor of epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic.

"If we reduce the risk of the conditions that lead to cardiac disease, hopefully we can reduce the risk of developing MCI, and thereby reduce the risk of developing dementia," she said.

That means following a nutritious diet and increasing the amount of cardiovascular physical activity you perform on a daily basis is crucial. If you're already living with heart disease, it's important to be proactive about with your condition.  Visit the doctor on a regular basis to ensure you're maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

To live a long, healthy and more productive life, the American Heart Association also recommends maintaining a normal weight and quitting smoking as a part of the Life's Simple 7® program.

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