Good cardiovascular health at age 50 is linked to a reduced risk of dementia later in life, according to a new study of British adults published in The BMJ journal.
Dementia is a progressive disease that can start to develop 15 to 20 years before any noticeable symptoms appear, so identifying factors that might prevent its onset is very important.
Based on the study, the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” cardiovascular health score, initially designed for cardiovascular disease, has been put forward as a potential tool for preventing dementia. Life’s Simple 7 includes the following actions: manage blood pressure, control cholesterol, reduce blood sugar, get active, eat better, lose weight, and stop smoking.
For the study, the researchers looked at cardiovascular data collected from 7,899 British men and women at age 50 who were enrolled in the Whitehall II Study, which tracks the impact of social, behavioral, and biological factors on long term health.
All 7,899 participants were free of cardiovascular disease and dementia at age 50. But after an average follow-up period of 25 years, 347 cases of dementia were recorded. Average age at dementia diagnosis was 75 years.
After taking into account potentially influential factors, the researchers found that adherence to the Life’s Simple 7 cardiovascular health recommendations in midlife was linked to a lower risk of dementia later in life.
Compared with an incidence rate of dementia of 3.2 per 1000 person years among the group with a poor cardiovascular score, those with an intermediate score had an incidence of 1.8 per 1000 person years, while those with an optimal score had an incidence of 1.3 per 1000 person years.
Person years is a type of measurement that takes into account both the number of people in the study and the amount of time each person spends in the study.
Better cardiovascular health scores at age 50 were also associated with higher whole brain and grey matter volumes in MRI scans 20 years later. And reductions in dementia risk were also evident across the continuum of the cardiovascular score, suggesting that even small improvements in cardiovascular risk factors at age 50 may reduce dementia risk in old age, researchers noted.
“Our findings suggest that the Life’s Simple 7, which comprises the cardiovascular health score, at age 50 may shape the risk of dementia in a synergistic manner,” according to the authors.
“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.”
The researchers point to some study limitations, such as relying on self-reported measures and potentially missing cases of dementia in patient records. And since the study is observational, it does not establish cause.