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Poor Cardiovascular Health Can Lead to Decreased Memory and Cognition, Says Study

Cardiovascular Health

Having a healthy cardiovascular system is of course important for long-term health and longevity. A new study finds that it is also associated with better memory and cognitive function.

The study found that people with poor cardiovascular health were more apt to develop learning and memory problems than people with good, or even moderate, heart and circulatory system health.

The findings were gathered from close to 18,000 black or white individuals, age 45 and older, who were participating in a long-term study called Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (“REGARDS”); the study examines the cardiovascular health of participants. More than half live in the “Stroke Belt” — an area in the southeastern United States recognized by public health authorities as having a much higher incidence of stroke and other cardiovascular diseases than other regions (it consists of 11 southeastern states, excluding Florida).

Researchers examined participants whose cognitive function was considered normal, and who had never had a stroke. Their cognitive function was evaluated again an average of four years later; people who had had strokes in the interim were eliminated from the second evaluation. Three tests were administered, to measure verbal learning, memory and speed at which cognitive decisions were made.

The tests found that at the second measuring, 4.6% of subjects with poor cardiovascular health had developed cognitive impairment; this compared to 2.7% of those with moderate cardiovascular health, and 2.6% of those with good cardiovascular health.

Study author Evan Thacker, assistant professor and chronic disease epidemiologist at Brigham Young University, stated that the findings seem to indicate that even when optimal cardiovascular health is not achieved, intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are much better than low levels. Dr. Thacker added that intermediate cardiovascular health may be a more realistic goal for many Americans.

Differences in cognitive performance from the first evaluation to the second were associated with cardiovascular health, regardless of race, gender, educational level or geographic location where participants lived. The strongest relationships for developing cognitive impairment were seen with smoking, high body mass index (BMI), and high fasting glucose.

The study did not explain the specific reasons for the link between poor cardiovascular health and diminished cognition; but Dr. Thacker stated that subclinical strokes might play a role. Subclinical strokes are lesser strokes that have no symptoms, and as such, can go undetected by the victims (but they still damage the brain).

To determine cardiovascular health, researchers used the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” — a list of seven simple measures that people can influence through diet and lifestyle, to move from poor or intermediate, to ideal cardiovascular health. The list measures four modifiable behavioral factors: smoking, diet, physical activity and body mass index; and three modifiable physiological factors: blood pressure, total cholesterol and fasting glucose.

Results of the study were reported online recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

A previous analysis of another study, the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults), which included young adults 18 to 30, had found that better cardiovascular health in young adulthood was associated with better cognitive function 25 years later.

By Jamell Andrews

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