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Good Heart Health Can Lead to Good Brain Health

Emerging research suggests paying attention to cardiovascular health can provide a double benefit as good heart health is related to good brain health.

Emory University researchers studied twin brothers from the Vietnam Era Twin registry to understand how genes and/or the environment influence the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive decline. The findings suggest improving cardiovascular health may also reduce the risk of dementia.

The American Heart Association defines ideal cardiovascular health (CVH) across seven modifiable risk factors (blood sugar, serum cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, physical activity, diet and cigarette smoking). Higher CVH scores point to better heart health and lower risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Prior studies have indicated that ideal CVH also benefits brain health and cognitive aging. By studying pairs of twin brothers, researchers were able to observe the relationship between CVH and cognitive performance across all participants that may be explained by genetics and/or exposures or behaviors that are shared by members of the same family. The study appears in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Twin studies are a special type of epidemiological study that allow researchers to examine the overall role of genes and environment in a behavioral trait or disorder. Identical twins share 100 percent of their genetic material, while fraternal twins share on average 50 percent of genetic material.

For a given trait or medical condition, any extra similarity between identical twins compared with fraternal twins, is likely suggestive of genes rather than environment. Therefore, twin studies are often used to “differentiate between “nature vs. nurture.”

“Our study across the entire sample of twins confirmed that better CVH is associated with better cognitive health in several domains,” said senior author Viola Vaccarino, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“The analyses further suggested that familial factors shared by the twins explain a large part of the association and thus could be important for both cardiovascular and brain health.”

To determine whether these familial factors were genetically or environmentally driven, researchers further stratified the within-pair analysis to determine whether the relationship between CVH and cognitive function was different between identical and fraternal twins.

The within-pair association was similar in identical and fraternal twins. Consequently, familial factors, such as early family environment, early socioeconomic status and education, and parenting may be important precursors of both cardiovascular and brain health. This link, rather than genetics, may explain some of the association between CVH and cognition.

“Improving population-level CVH scores, which are extremely low in the United States, has the potential to reduce the burden of dementia along with heart disease,” said study co-author Ambar Kulshreshtha, M.D., Ph.D.

“Because CVH factors are modifiable, prevention of cardiovascular risk factors and promotion of a healthy lifestyle beginning early in life should achieve the best results for promoting not only cardiovascular health, but also cognitive health.”

Source: Emory University

Good Heart Health Can Lead to Good Brain Health

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). Good Heart Health Can Lead to Good Brain Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Oct 2019 (Originally: 23 Oct 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Oct 2019
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