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Physical Health Problems in Your 20s Affects Brain Health Decades Later

Having health issues such as smoking, high cholesterol, or a high body mass index (BMI) in your 20s may make you more likely to have problems with thinking and memory skills decades later, according to a new study from researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“These results indicate that people need to pay close attention to their health even in their early 20s,” said study author Farzaneh A. Sorond, MD, PhD, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

“We’ve known that vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and high blood glucose levels are linked to cerebrovascular damage and problems with thinking skills in older people, but this study shows that these factors may be linked decades earlier and injury may start much earlier,” she continued.

The study included 189 people with an average age of 24 who were followed for 30 years as part of a larger study. Of the group, 45% were black and 55% were white, the researchers report.

The study participants were tested eight times over the course of the study. Each time, their cardiovascular health was assessed based on five factors: Smoking, BMI, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose level.

At their 30-year visit, the study participants’ thinking and memory skills were tested, along with their brain’s ability to regulate its blood flow.

The researchers found that people with better cardiovascular health at the beginning of the study were more likely to have higher scores on the tests of thinking and memory skills 30 years later than those with worse cardiovascular health.

For example, on a test of attention skills where scores ranged from seven to 103, each point higher on the cardiovascular health score was associated with a 2.2 points higher score in attention skills, the researchers report.

The results were the same after researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect thinking and memory skills, such as level of education.

The people with better cardiovascular health at the beginning of the study and seven years into the study were more likely to have better cerebral autoregulation, or the body’s ability to maintain stable blood flow in the brain, the researchers said. This means that during changes in blood pressure, the brain is able to maintain adequate blood flow, they explained.

“More focus on a life course research approach is needed to help us better understand how these vascular risk factors affect brain health as we age,” Sorond said.

She noted the study does not prove that better cardiovascular health results in better thinking and memory skills or better ability of the brain to regulate blood flow, it only shows an association.

According to the researchers, a limitation of the study was that researchers did not have cerebral autoregulation measures at each visit to better understand the relationship over time between cardiovascular health and brain blood flow regulation as they relate to midlife cognition.

The results of the preliminary study were released Feb. 26, 2020, in advance of the presentation of the study at the American Academy of Neurology’s 72nd Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada April 25 to May 1, 2020.

Source: American Academy of Neurology

Physical Health Problems in Your 20s Affects Brain Health Decades Later

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Physical Health Problems in Your 20s Affects Brain Health Decades Later. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/03/06/physical-health-problems-in-your-20s-affects-brain-health-decades-later/154582.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Mar 2020 (Originally: 6 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Mar 2020
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