Could a healthy heart help to prevent dementia?

Could a healthy heart help to prevent dementia?
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New research suggests that a health heart earlier in life can help to prevent or delay dementia later in life.

A team of researchers at the University of Oxford and University College London has shown that targeting arterial stiffening – whereby arteries become thicker and stiffer as we age – earlier in a person’s life may help to prevent or delay the onset of dementia as well as providing cognitive benefits later in life. The study found that the faster aortic stiffening in mid-life to older age took place, the poorer the markers were for brain health.  

Dr Scott Chiesa, research associate at the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science, said: “With no cure for dementia, there is an increased focus on understanding how to prevent or delay its onset. Importantly, our study helps us understand when in the lifespan it will be best to target and improve cardiovascular health to benefit the brain.”

Medical interventions

The team looked at 542 older adults who received two measurements of aortic stiffness, at 64 years old and 68 years old. Using cognitive tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, the team assessed the size, connections, and blood supply of different brain regions – finding that aortic stiffening can contribute to lower blood supply to the brain, poorer memory, and reduced structural connectivity between brain regions.

 Dr Sana Suri, Alzheimer’s Society research fellow at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, said: “Our study links heart health with brain health, and gives us insights into the potential of reducing aortic stiffening to help maintain brain health in older ages.

“Reduced connectivity between different brain regions is an early marker of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and preventing these changes by reducing or slowing down the stiffening of our body’s large blood vessels may be one way to maintain brain health and memory as we grow older.”

This can be done with medical interventions, say the researchers, and making lifestyle changes such as improving diet and exercise.

This study shows the importance of interdisciplinary work in this field and stresses the benefits of studying the brain in conjunction with other organ systems. Arteries stiffen faster if someone has pre-existing heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other vascular diseases. Arterial stiffening is also progressively faster with long-term exposure to poor health behaviours and lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking or poor diets. It is possible to reduce arterial stiffening by medical treatments or lifestyle interventions, such as modifying the diet and exercising.

Dr Richard Oakley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, which funded the study, said: “Dementia devastates lives, and with the number of people with dementia set to rise to 1 million by 2025 and more families affected than ever before, reducing our risk has never been more important. This Alzheimer’s Society funded study didn’t look for a link between heart health and dementia directly, but it has shed important light on a connection between the health of our blood vessels and changes in the brain that indicate brain health.

“We know that what’s good for your heart is good for your head, and it’s exciting to see research that explores this link in more detail. But we need even more research to understand the impact of heart health on brain health as we age, and how that affects our own dementia risk. Alzheimer’s Society is committed to funding research into dementia prevention as well as research into a cure. But coronavirus has hit us hard, so it’s vital the Government honours its commitment to double dementia research spending to continue research like this.”

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