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Young adults’ heart health linked to future cognitive health

Tuesday April 1, 2014
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Being heart-healthy in young adulthood appears to increase people’s chances of staying mentally sharp in mid-life, according to new research.

In a 25-year study on 3,381 people ages 18 to 30, those with blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels slightly higher than the American Heart Association’s recommended guidelines scored lower on cognitive function tests in their 40s and 50s.

Standardized scores on three cognitive tests were between 0.06 to 0.30 points less, on average, for each standard deviation increase in cumulative exposure to these risk factors. Standard deviation is the amount of variation from the average.

“It’s amazing that as a young adult, mildly elevated cardiovascular risks seem to matter for your brain health later in life,” Kristine Yaffe, MD, study author and a neuropsychiatrist, epidemiologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a news release. “We’re not talking about old-age issues, but lifelong issues.”

The study, published March 31 on the website of the journal Circulation, is described as one of the first comprehensive long-term studies to examine the effects of key heart disease and stroke risk factors on cognitive function in this age group. Prior research showed similar effects of mid-life and late-life cardiovascular health on brainpower in late life.

The study was part of the ongoing multicenter Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. Participants had their blood pressure, fasting blood sugar and cholesterol levels checked every two to five years. The researchers analyzed each person’s cumulative cardiovascular health over 25 years. The American Heart Association defines ideal cardiovascular health as systolic blood pressure of less than 120 mm Hg, diastolic blood pressure of less than 80 mm Hg, blood sugar of less than 100 mg/dL and cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dL.

At the end of the study, participants took three tests measuring memory, thinking speed and mental flexibility.

Elevated blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol are three major risk factors for atherosclerosis. The narrowing of the arteries leading to and in the brain is the most likely explanation for the link between cardiovascular health and cognitive function, Yaffe said.

“Our study is hopeful, because it tells us we could maybe make a dent in the risks of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by emphasizing the importance of controlling risk factors among younger people,” she said.

Study abstract: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2014/03/18/CIRCULATIONAHA.113.004798.abstract


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