In a new study, researchers found that people with a higher risk of heart disease have increased cognitive decline, including an increase in typical markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings suggest that monitoring and controlling for heart disease may be key to maintaining and improving cognitive health later in life.
The research was conducted by a team at Tianjin Medical University.
Dementia is a public health challenge, with 50 million people affected in 2017 and the World Health Organization predicting 82 million people by 2030.
There is not currently effective treatment for dementia, so identifying modifiable risk factors that could delay or prevent dementia onset is becoming more prominent.
Previous studies have reported how heart disease risk factors were related to smaller volumes of specific brain regions, such as white matter, gray matter, and hippocampus, but findings have been inconsistent.
Researchers in this study sought to compare Framingham General Cardiovascular Risk Scores (FGCRS), which incorporate demographic information with traditional cardiovascular risk factors to assess future risk, to an individual’s long-term decline in global and domain-specific cognitive function.
They followed 1,588 dementia-free participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project for 21 years. The average age was 79.5 years.
Each year participants’ episodic memory (memory of everyday events), semantic memory (long-term memory), working memory (short-term memory), visuospatial ability (capacity to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects) and perceptual speed (ability to accurately and completely compare letters, numbers, objects, pictures or patterns) was assessed using 19 tests to derive a composite score.
At the end of the study period, the researchers found that having a higher heart disease risk burden was linked to a faster decline in episodic memory, working memory, and perceptual speed.
They also looked at MRI data for a subset of patients and found that higher heart disease risk was linked to smaller volumes of the hippocampus, cortical gray matter, and total brain.
Decreases in hippocampal and gray matter are typical markers of Alzheimer’s dementia-related neurodegeneration.
MRIs also showed a greater volume of white matter hyperintensities, which are white spots on the brain that cause an area to decline in functionality.
The team says that in the absence of effective treatments for dementia, doctors need to monitor and control cardiovascular risk burden as a way to maintain the patient’s cognitive health as they age.
One author of the study is Weili Xu, Ph.D., Department of Epidemiology, and Biostatistics.
The study is published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
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