We all know that exercising and eating right is important to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, which strike older people in particular. Cardiovascular disease affects up to 75 percent of people over the age of 60. And now, there’s even more incentive for people to do right by their hearts: A new study shows that taking care of your heart health has big benefits for your brain.
Researchers from Bordeaux University and INSERM in France looked at seven recommended measures to lower the risk of heart disease. But instead of seeing how those measures affect heart health, they decided to track how adhering to them affected dementia risk. The rules were half behavioral—not smoking, having a BMI under 25, getting regular exercise, and eating fish twice a week and fruits and vegetables at least three times a day—and half biological—having blood pressure under 120/80 mm Hg, keeping total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL and blood sugar under 100 mg/dL.
They looked at over 6,600 seniors and compared how well they stuck to the rules to the prevalence of dementia among the group. They found a strong association between the rules and dementia; for each rule that the participant followed, dementia risk dropped by ten percent compared to those who didn’t follow any of the rules. Those who followed every rule had a 70 percent lower risk compared to those who followed none.
The results are significant because the study focused on people already in their senior years. All of the participants, which were pulled from a French study called The Three-City Study, were over 65 and the average age was 73.7 years. They were given cognitive tests at the beginning of the study and were followed for an average of 8.5 years. During that time, 745 of the 6,622 people in the study developed dementia.
Study authors emphasized that even following some of the rules translated to a lower risk of dementia. Most study participants didn’t follow all of them—6.5 percent scored well on five of the seven while 36.4 followed two or less. But every little bit counts. Of those who fulfilled one or two measures at the beginning of the study, an average of 13% developed dementia over the next 8.5 years. Of those who met five or more measures when they first joined the study, only 7% were later diagnosed with dementia.
The overall message?
“[…] 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,” Dr. Jeffrey Saver, a leader of the UCLA Stroke Center, and Dr. Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont wrote in an editorial that accompanied the study. “Avoid smoking, eat a healthy diet, be 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,” they wrote.
This study adds to a large body of evidence that shows the health of the heart is connected to the brain. Importantly, it shows that people can take action as they age and potentially reap the benefits almost immediately, though the study did not look at whether participants were heart-healthy earlier in life, which could have influenced the outcome.
“Although this study stopped short of examining whether participants had healthy hearts in earlier life—which might have contributed to fewer of them getting dementia in later life—everyone should take steps from an early age such as eating a balanced diet, avoiding smoking and heavy drinking, and exercising regularly,” said Doug Brown, Chief Policy and Research Officer at Alzheimer’s Society.
“We need more in-depth, long-term research to unpick this relationship with heart health and dementia specifically. In the meantime, choose that banana over the bowl of chips, and get out and about as much as possible.”