Individuals with poor cardiovascular health are at far greater risk for developing cognitive impairment, particularly learning and memory problems, than those with intermediate or ideal cardiovascular health, according to a new study published in the Journal of American Heart Association.
“Even when ideal cardiovascular health is not achieved, intermediate levels of cardiovascular health are preferable to low levels for better cognitive function,” said lead investigator Evan L. Thacker, Ph.D., an assistant professor and chronic disease epidemiologist at Brigham Young University Department of Health Science, in Provo, Utah.
“This is an encouraging message because intermediate cardiovascular health is a more realistic target for many individuals than ideal cardiovascular health.”
Specifically, researchers found that people with the worst cardiovascular health were more likely to have problems with learning, memory, and verbal fluency tests than those with intermediate or better cardiovascular health.
The study included 17,761 people, ages 45 and older, with normal cognitive function and no history of stroke. Four years later, researchers evaluated their cognitive skills.
Researchers used data from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study to assess cardiovascular health based on The American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 score. The REGARDS study population is 55 percent women, 42 percent blacks, 58 percent whites, and 56 percent are residents of the “stroke belt” states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Life’s Simple 7 is a system designed to measure seven health behaviors and their risk factors as they pertain to cardiovascular health. These include smoking, diet, physical activity, body mass index, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting glucose. Each section can be broken down into poor, intermediate, or ideal.
Researchers found cognitive impairment in 4.6 percent of people with poor cardiovascular health scores; 2.7 percent of those with intermediate health profiles; and 2.6 percent of those in the best cardiovascular health category.
The statistics were consistent after factoring in race, gender, pre-existing cardiovascular conditions, or geographic region, although higher cardiovascular health scores were more common in men, people with higher education, higher income, and those with no cardiovascular disease.
The tests for cognitive function measured verbal learning, memory, and fluency. The verbal learning section used a three-trial, ten-item word list. Verbal memory was determined by asking participants to recall the ten-item list after a brief delay filled with non-cognitive questions. Verbal fluency was determined by having participants name as many animals as they could in 60 seconds.
Although the specific factors behind the results are not yet known, Thacker noted that undetected subclinical strokes could not be ruled out.
Source: American Heart Association