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Good heart health in midlife ‘reduces the risk of dementia 25 years’

Good heart health in your 50s ‘slashes your risk of dementia 25 years later by maintaining blood vessels and curbing inflammation’

  • Having an ‘optimal heart score’ at 50 reduces risk of dementia at 75
  • Score takes into account diet, smoking, BMI cholesterol and blood pressure
  • Every point increase on the score reduces risk of dementia by 11% 

Good heart health in your fifties may reduce your risk of developing dementia in old age, research suggests.

Scientists found those with an ‘optimal cardiovascular score’ during middle age were less likely to develop the memory-robbing disorder over the next 25 years.

The score takes into account lifestyle factors, such as smoking and diet, as well as cholesterol and blood pressure levels. 

Every increase in the 14-point score reduced the participants’ risk of going on to get dementia by 11 per cent, the study found.  

The results, based on nearly 8,000 people, add to a growing body of research that suggests what is good for the heart is good for the brain.  

Good heart health at 50 may reduce the risk of dementia in old age (stock)

The scientists from University of Paris-Saclay believe eating well, exercising and not smoking helps to reduce inflammation, lower ‘internal’ stress and keep blood vessels healthy – all of which are linked to dementia.

‘Our findings suggest the cardiovascular health score at age 50 may shape the risk of dementia,’ the researchers wrote in the British Medical Journal.

‘Cardiovascular risk factors are modifiable, making them strategically important prevention targets. 

‘This study supports public-health policies to improve cardiovascular health as early as age 50 to promote cognitive health.’

Dementia affects 850,000 people in the UK and 5.7 million in the US. Heart disease is responsible for a quarter of all deaths in both countries statistics show. 

Symptoms like memory loss, poor judgement and disorientation can appear up to 15 years before dementia. 

Although dementia is considered an ‘elderly disease’, it is important to identify how to prevent its onset as early as middle age, the researchers wrote. 

Good heart health is increasingly being linked to slower cognitive decline and a reduced risk of dementia. 

WHAT IS DEMENTIA? 

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders, that is, conditions affecting the brain.

There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.

Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.

Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.

HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?

The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.

It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.

In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.

As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.

Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.

IS THERE A CURE?

Currently there is no cure for dementia.

But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.

Source: Dementia UK 

The researchers, led by Dr Séverine Sabia, looked at 7,899 Britons, aged 50, who took part in the Whitehall II Study. 

The participants’ ‘Life Simple 7’ risk scores were calculated, with them then being followed over the next 25 years.

Life Simple 7 was put together by the American Heart Association to help prevent cardiovascular disease. 

It adds up four behavioural risk factors – smoking, diet, physical activity and BMI – and three biological – fasting blood sugar levels, cholesterol and blood pressure. 

Scores between zero and six are ranked as poor, while seven to 11 are intermediate and 12 to 14 are considered optimal. 

Among the participants, 347 went on to be diagnosed with dementia, with most being told they had the disease at 75.

The researchers found sticking to Life Simple 7 recommendations reduced the risk of the memory-robbing disorder, with even small changes adding up. 

For every one point increase in a patient’s cardiovascular score, their risk of dementia went down by 11 per cent. 

MRI scans also showed those with a higher Life Simple 7 score had healthier ‘whole brain and grey matter volumes’ 20 years later.

Grey matter, which contains most of the brain’s nerve cells, is involved in memory, emotions and decision making. 

Exactly how heart and brain health are related is unclear and ‘likely to be complex’, the researchers admitted.

However, it may be linked to the health of major arteries and small blood vessels, as well as reduced inflammation, improved tissue function and low internal stress. 

Fiona Carragher, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said the results of this study ‘aren’t completely new’.

But she added: ‘It adds to a growing bank of evidence to support the link between heart and brain health.

‘We already know what is good for the heart is good for the head. Sadly, dementia can still develop in people who follow all the heart-healthy rules.

‘[But] it is encouraging to see practical steps people can take to help to reduce their risk of dementia in later life.

‘We encourage everyone to swap out crisps and the sofa for a stroll in the park and a healthy picnic.’

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