Maintaining a healthy heart won’t just keep you alive for longer, it could also be a great defence against developing dementia and cognitive decline, according to a new study.
To examine the links between cardiovascular health and the kinds of brain deterioration that come with dementia, scientists looked at data on almost 3,000 people to see if there were any positive effects on the brain when adhering to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) ‘ideal cardiovascular health’ index, which includes eating a balanced diet, being active, managing your weight, eliminating tobacco smoke, and maintaining ideal levels of blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Good ideas all round, to be sure, and according to the AHA, hitting these targets is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease. But now researchers think they could also help ward off dementia, cognitive decline, and stroke risk.
When examining data from 3,000 patients in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort study, scientists from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and Boston University found that participants with higher ideal CVH scores in the study had a lower 10-year risk of developing stroke and vascular dementia.
And to some extent, the protective effects are long-lasting. Participants who previously had had higher ideal CVH also had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, which could mean that good midlife vascular health may be an important factor to help protect against developing dementia when you get older.
Over a follow-up period of seven years, participants with better CVH scores also demonstrated less brain shrinkage and less decline in mental ability. Taken together, the findings, reported in Stroke, suggest that maintaining good cardiovascular health is a win-win for heart and brain. Of course, what we have so far is only an association between the CVH scores and cognitive decline, scientists have yet to prove causation through some kind of biological mechanism. But it’s a promising line of research, especially since maintaining good cardiovascular health is something we should all be doing anyway.
“There is cause for optimism, with emerging evidence suggesting that society can both grow older and lower dementia burden,” the authors write. “In line with this notion, our data suggest that adhering to CVH guidelines protects against all forms of vascular brain injury, lessening the burden of cognitive decline, stroke, brain atrophy, and dementia, including AD. Further promoting ideal CVH, particularly to middle aged adults, may improve neurological outcomes for our ageing citizens.” “The risk of dementia doubles every five years after the age of 65. With increasing life expectancies, there is a pressing need to find ways to prevent dementia,” added neurologist Matthew Pase from Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology. “Our study suggests that adhering to simple healthy heart guidelines, particularly in midlife, can significantly reduce the risk of vascular brain injury and dementia.”
Studies have sugges-ted acute stress may directly disrupt normal heart rhythms and prompt the production of chemicals involved in inflammation, which is a physical response to injury or infection. Bereavement, such as after the loss of a partner, often brings about symptoms of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, and hopelessness. Losing a partner to death ranks highly on a psychological scale of severely stressful life events.
Such stress could affect basic hormonal processes. The release of adrenalin, for instance, is useful in acute danger, as it increases your heart rate and diverts blood to your muscles so you can run or fight, but it can disrupt heart rhythm if the release is excessive and prolonged. Acute mental stress may also create imbalance in the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, that controls many basic functions. It also modulates our heart frequency and the electrical nerve pathways that run through the heart to the muscle, facilitating a synchronised contraction of the heart chambers.
The people experiencing severe mental stress from bereavement are a vulnerable group that might need more medical attention. With a biologically plausible association, early identification of this group is currently a major challenge in the health care system.
The study’s findings don’t just have significant clinical relevance though. We are currently experiencing substantial levels of stress in modern society. And while stress is a potentially modifiable risk factor, many people develop stress related illnesses that are a key driver to growing health care costs.
Until tomorrow: Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.

Dorothy Prats
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