If You Have These Heart Conditions, Your Dementia Risk Triples, Experts Warn
Your heart and your brain are more closely linked than you might think.
When you think about dementia, cognitive decline and memory loss likely come to mind first—so you might be surprised to learn that your heart actually plays a significant role in your dementia risk. According to a new study published in The Lancet in June 2022, people with certain heart conditions are three times more likely to develop dementia than those with a high genetic risk. Read on to discover which heart problems could put you at greater risk for dementia, and how you can reduce your chances of developing cognitive decline if you have them.
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Multiple heart conditions can increase your dementia risk.
The large-scale study looked at health and genetic data from more than 200,000 people 60 and older with no pre-existing dementia symptoms, and followed them for over 15 years. Researchers observed that those diagnosed with certain cardiovascular conditions (or any combination of them) experienced a spike in their dementia risk.
"Our main analysis looked at heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. These three are all related to heart health. We also examined heart failure and found similar results," Xin You Tai, PhD, lead author of the study and a neurology specialist at Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, tells Best Life. "We found that having multiple conditions that affect the heart was linked to three times greater risk of dementia than having a high genetic risk."
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A history of heart attacks affects your brain health.
In addition to damaging your heart, heart attacks can elevate your risk of dementia, experts warn. "Many of the risk factors related to heart disease are also risk factors for the development of dementia," explains Jennifer Mieres, MD, a professor of cardiology at Zucker School of Medicine. "Also, a history of previous heart attack is an independent risk factor for the development of dementia."
According to the Mayo Clinic, several studies show that people with a history of heart attacks were at a greater risk of developing vascular dementia—a condition characterized by changes in memory, thinking, and behavior resulting from reduced blood flow to the brain.
Stroke elevates your risk of cognitive decline.
A prior history of stroke is another factor that makes your dementia risk skyrocket. "When a person has a stroke, the blood flow and circulation around the brain is affected and oxygen is not supplied as it should be," explains You Tai. A 2017 study published in Neurology International found that the risk of vascular dementia is highest in stroke patients with atrial fibrillation—an irregular (and often rapid) heartbeat that can cause blood clots in the heart.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the risk factors for atrial fibrillation include advanced age, high blood pressure, heart and lung disease, congenital heart disease, and high alcohol consumption. You can reduce your stroke risk and protect your brain health by making healthy lifestyle changes that prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity—all risk factors for stroke.
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Managing diabetes benefits your heart and brain.
While diabetes isn't strictly a heart condition, it can also affect your heart health and raise your dementia risk. According to the NIH, high blood sugar levels from diabetes can damage your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart and blood vessels. Over time, this damage can lead to heart disease, putting you in danger of developing dementia due to damaged blood vessels that can no longer provide sufficient blood flow to the brain.
Fortunately, you can take steps to protect your heart and potentially stave off dementia. These include getting regular exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet rich in plants and healthy fats, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, and monitoring risk factors such as blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. "Small, consistent changes can have a huge impact over time," Mieres says. "Remember that lifestyle changes aren't 'all or nothing'—small changes made over a lifetime have been shown to have a significant clinical benefit."
Speak with your healthcare provider for more guidance on protecting your heart and brain. Percy Griffin, PhD, Alzheimer's Association director of scientific engagement, tells Best Life, "The conversation about heart health management is something everyone should be having with their doctor. Improving your heart health is important to maintaining your brain health as you age."