New evidence shows what’s good for the heart is good for the brain

In a new study, researchers give people more reasons to pay attention to their heart health.

They found that good heart health can equal good brain health.

The research was conducted by a team at Emory University

The American Heart Association defines ideal cardiovascular health (CVH) across seven modifiable risk factors (blood sugar, serum cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, physical activity, diet, and cigarette smoking).

Higher CVH scores point to better heart health and lower risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Previous studies have indicated that ideal CVH also benefits brain health and cognitive aging.

However, it was unclear how genes and/or environment played into the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive decline.

By studying pairs of twin brothers, the researchers were able to observe the relationship between CVH and cognitive performance across all participants that may be explained by genetics and/or exposures or behaviors that are shared by members of the same family.

Twin studies are a special type of epidemiological study that allows researchers to examine the overall role of genes and the environment in a behavioral trait or disorder.

Identical twins share 100% of their genetic material, while fraternal twins share on average 50% of genetic material.

For a given trait or medical condition, any excess similarity between identical twins compared with fraternal twins is likely suggestive of genes rather than the environment.

Twin studies can serve to differentiate between “nature vs. nurture.”

The current study across the entire sample of twins confirmed that better CVH is associated with better cognitive health in several domains.

The analyses further suggested that familial factors shared by the twins explain a large part of the association and thus could be important for both heart and brain health.

To determine whether these familial factors were genetically or environmentally driven, the researchers further stratified the within-pair analysis to determine whether the relationship between CVH and cognitive function was different between identical and fraternal twins.

They found familial factors, such as early family environment, early socioeconomic status, and education, and parenting—rather than genetics—may be important precursors of both heart and brain health—thus explaining some of the association between CVH and cognition.

The team says the prevention of heart disease risk factors and promotion of a healthy lifestyle beginning early in life should achieve the best results for promoting not only heart health but also cognitive health.

One author of the study is Viola Vaccarino, MD, Ph.D., Wilton Looney Professor of Cardiovascular Research.

The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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