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Protecting Your Heart May Help Your Brain, Too

September 19, 2023

Lifestyle and medical conditions that make us vulnerable to heart problems may also increase our risk for cognitive decline, recent research shows.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that people with higher 10-year cardiovascular risk scores also fared poorly on tests for cognitive function. Cardiovascular disease includes heart disease, stroke and heart failure. The key takeaway is that by protecting your heart, you may also be protecting yourself from dementia.

Heart/Brain Connection

This is an area where research is still relatively new. But among the best-known connections between cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline are the health threats presented by high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and obesity. Some of these factors tend to increase as we get older, so they may be overlooked or dismissed when cognitive decline is seen as a natural part of the aging process.

But while these risk factors are threatening your heart and blood vessels, they may also be causing structural changes within your brain. There’s a key difference between the way these two areas of your body are affected.

With your cardiovascular system, it’s often possible to reverse the damage through medication, lifestyle changes and medical procedures. But there’s no clear-cut way to do the same if you have Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia. That’s why you should try to reduce cardiovascular risk factors before the first signs of cognitive impairment are noticeable.

Reducing Cardiovascular Disease Risk

There are some cardiovascular disease risk factors, including your age and genetics, that you can’t control. But for others, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, you can make a significant difference through lifestyle and diet changes.

Among the strategies:

  • Stop smoking, vaping or using tobacco
  • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day
  • Eat heart-healthy food, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish
  • Avoid unhealthy foods, including processed meats and snacks, foods high in salt, red meat, and sugary snacks and drinks
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get regular health screenings

Cognitive Decline

When cognitive loss occurs, it can be often easier for medical professionals to diagnose, while family and friends may just see it as being a “little forgetful.” One of the most common symptoms is short term memory loss, though it is not uncommon to forget something. Not being able to immediately remember the name of a movie you saw last month doesn’t mean you have Alzheimer's.

Rather, it’s an accumulation of events over time. You may remember something that happened 30 years ago quite clearly but have difficulty recalling something you were told a few minutes ago. You may forget where you put your keys. Or that you even had keys to begin with. You may start telling the same story over and over (to the same person) because you forgot you already told the story.

Other signs include:

  • Trouble with complex tasks
  • Difficulty finding the right word
  • Problems with reasoning or problem solving
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty with visual or spatial abilities, which could make it easier to get lost
  • Trouble with organization, including taking medications on schedule

Getting Help

One of the most important things you can do for your health is to have regular checkups with your primary care doctor. This helps keep track of your health and its changes over the years. It also helps identify potential problems before they become more advanced.

People who have regular checkups are often hesitant to mention that they have started to become forgetful. Just know that your doctor is there to help. The more information you provide will help them offer better advice and specialist referrals when needed.

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