New research has found that cardiovascular health and genetics can jointly increase the risk of dementia.
The research, published in the journal Neurology, suggests that even if someone is genetically predisposed to develop dementia, maintaining good cardiovascular health can help reduce this risk.
According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), dementia describes a person’s loss of cognitive functioning, which affects their ability to think, remember, and reason. Various issues can cause this, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.
Mild dementia may present as increasing forgetfulness or momentary confusion, accompanied by at least one other area of poor functioning, such as losing your way home (visuospatial problems) or not knowing how to pay a bill (executive function).
As it becomes moderate or severe, it can result in changes in personality, a failure to recognize family or friends, and an almost complete dependence on others for basic life activities.
Dementia occurs when a significant number of neurons — key cells in the brain — no longer function properly and ultimately die.
According to the NIA, this can happen in Alzheimer’s disease due to a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
There is currently no cure for dementia. So understanding how these factors interrelate is the best way to help clinicians advise patients on what they can do to minimize their chances of developing this condition.
Genetics vs. cardiovascular health
In the present research, the researchers drew on data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS)— a long-term study organized by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — to look at the relationship between genetics, cardiovascular health, and dementia.
The investigators assessed the data of 1,211 participants from the FHS, analyzing their relative cardiovascular health and genetic risk score for dementia.
The researchers found that participants with high genetic risk scores were 2.6 times more likely to develop dementia than those with low-risk scores.
They also found that good cardiovascular health can reduce a person’s chances of developing dementia by 55% across the follow-up period, an average of 8.4 years. Having relatively poor cardiovascular health increased a person’s risk of developing dementia.
Finally, the study made it clear that genetic predisposition and poor cardiovascular health can jointly increase a person’s risk of developing dementia.
According to Dr. Sudha Seshadri, of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and a co-author of the research, “[t]he connection between heart health and brain health becomes clearer with each finding.”
“We hope that the results of this study will send the public a message, and that message is to exercise, reduce stress, and eat a healthy diet. Then, regardless of your genes, you have the potential to lower your risk of dementia.”
– Dr. Sudha Seshadri
Adding to this, co-author Dr. Claudia Satizabal noted, “[i]t is imperative to start today. [F]rom our findings, having favorable cardiovascular health mitigates the risk of dementia in persons with high genetic risk.”
While there are many unknowns around dementia, the study contributes to a growing body of research demonstrating that staying physically active and eating well can make a meaningful difference to cognitive health issues.