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How a Healthy Heart Can Help Lower Risk of Dementia

3 minute read

To ward off heart disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) has a helpful list of the most important risk factors that can lower your chances of having heart problems. It turns out those very same things can also reduce the risk of dementia.

In a new study published in JAMA, researchers led by Cecilia Samieri, an epidemiologist at Bordeaux University and INSERM in France, investigated the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7 metrics that the organization says can help lower the risk of heart disease. But Samieri and her colleagues evaluated them for how they affected dementia risk. The measures include not smoking, having a BMI under 25, getting regular exercise, having blood pressure under 120/80 mm Hg, keeping total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL and blood sugar under 100 mg/dL, and eating fish twice a week and fruits and vegetables at least three times a day.

The researchers found that for each measure people successfully fulfilled, their risk of dementia declined by 10%, compared to people who did not have any of the seven factors under control. For those who had all seven of the risk factors at optimal levels, their risk of dementia was reduced by 70%.

Most of the previous studies looking at modifiable behaviors and dementia risk focused on the effect that individual measures — such as blood pressure alone, or obesity alone — might have on cognitive decline. But, says Samieri, “we combined the factors and demonstrated that each time you add an additional factor that is controlled at optimal levels, you decrease the risk of dementia.”

Even more encouraging is the fact that the effect seemed to remain strong even for the older group of people that made up the study, all of whom were over 65. “It’s never too late,” she says of getting these risk factors under control to keep the brain healthy.

The study followed people for an average of 8.5 years and measured dementia and cognitive decline using a combination of neurology exams and cognitive and memory tests. The more risk factors that people had at optimal levels, the lower their risk of dementia. That means that even if people can’t control all seven risk factors, getting a few — or even one — to recommended levels can be beneficial for the brain.

That’s an important message for doctors and the public alike, she says. “Even if you cannot do all seven, then try to do your best,” says Samieri. She hopes that the findings encourage more doctors to advise their patients that the heart- and brain-healthy risk factors are not an all-or-nothing deal, and that any change people make toward keeping these factors at optimal levels can protect them from dementia, even if they start later in life.

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