FEB 27, 2023 1:00 PM PST

Seven heart health factors linked to risk of dementia

WRITTEN BY: Amielle Moreno

It appears the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) has joined forces with the American Heart Association. In an abstract slated for presentation at the 2023 American Academy of Neurology’s 75th Annual Meeting in April, the AAN draws a clearer line between dementia and heart health.

The abstract titled “Can seven healthy habits now reduce risk of dementia later?” lays out midlife habits and lifestyle factors associated with dementia.

Pamela Rist ScD of the AAN framed the report by saying, “since we now know that dementia can begin in the brain decades before diagnosis, it’s important that we learn more about how your habits in middle age can affect your risk of dementia in old age.”

The longitudinal study followed the health outcomes of 13,720 female participants via Medicare data for two decades. The average age of a participant at the beginning of the study was 54. Participants were scored on the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 factors:

  • Activity level
  • Diet
  • Weight maintenance
  • Smoking status
  • Blood pressure maintenance
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Blood sugar levels

Each participant received a score for each factor from zero to one. Their mean score was 4.3 out of seven possible points. Over the course of the study, 13% of participants were diagnosed with dementia.

Using Life’s Simple 7 scores, the researchers found increasing one's score by one point, decreased the risk of dementia by 6%.

Established research has linked each of the seven factors to cognitive performance. Even though blood does not come in direct contact with the brain, it supplies nutrients filtered through the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB coats the capillaries in the brain, allowing the inflow of oxygen and glucose and the removal of waste products back into the blood.

A healthy heart and vascular system will produce the right amount of pressure to preserve this delicate coating.

Heart disease and aging can lead to increased blood pressure. Less elastic arteries absorb less of the heart's pulsing force, which means high pressure is exacted on delicate brain capillaries, damaging the BBB.

Unfortunately, the hippocampus is particularly susceptible. Unhealthy heart functioning and age-related vascular changes can damage hippocampal capillaries and, thus, the ability to form episodic memories.

Rist managed to spin the findings positively by pointing out that "the good news is that making healthy lifestyle choices in middle age may lead to a decreased risk of dementia later in life."

This abstract will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 75th Annual Meeting being held in person in Boston and live online, April 22-27, 2023.

Sources: EurekAlert!, Trends in Cognitive Sciences

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Amielle Moreno earned her doctorate in neuroscience from Emory University and has dedicated her career to science communication, news coverage, and academic writing/editing. She is a published researcher who has branched out to author articles for various science websites. She recently published an original research article detailing her findings on how sensory areas of the brain respond to social sound. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her spinning the latest neuroscience news into comedy gold, hosting her podcast "Miss Behavior Journal Club." This fortnightly humorous podcast features the latest in behavioral research. Her goal in life is to defend and discover scientific truths.
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