Cardiovascular disease has been shown to have a negative impact on brain health in middle age. Research suggests that people with early onset cardiovascular disease may experience a decline in cognitive function and an increased risk of developing brain disorders such as dementia. It’s important for individuals to prioritize heart health and engage in lifestyle habits that can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and managing stress.
According to new research published in the online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, people with early cardiovascular disease may be more likely to have memory and thinking problems, as well as poorer brain health in middle age.
“Cardiovascular diseases like heart disease and stroke have been linked to an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults, but little is known about how having these diseases before the age of 60 affects cognition and brain health over the course of life,” study author Xiaqing Jiang, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, said. “Our research found that having a cardiovascular event earlier in life is associated with poor cognition, accelerated cognitive decline, and poor brain health in middle age.”
Our findings suggest that a person’s twenties and thirties are critical years to start protecting brain health through cardiovascular disease prevention and intervention. By preventing these diseases, we may be able to postpone the onset of cognitive decline and promote a healthier brain throughout life.Xiaqing Jiang
The study looked at 3,146 people. Participants were 18 to 30 years old at the start of the study and were followed for up to 30 years. By the end of the study, they had an average age of 55.
Early cardiovascular disease was defined as having coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, carotid artery disease, or peripheral artery disease before the age of 60 in 147 of the total participants, or 5%. A first cardiovascular event occurred at an average age of 48.
Participants were given five cognitive tests after being followed for three decades. Global cognition, processing speed, executive function, delayed verbal memory, and verbal fluency were all measured in the tests.
On five out of five tests, people with early cardiovascular disease performed worse than those who did not. In a 10-minute recall test with scores ranging from zero to 15, those with early cardiovascular disease outperformed those without, with an average score of 6.4 versus an average score of 8.5. In a global cognition test with a score range of zero to 30, those with early cardiovascular disease had an average score of 21.4, while those without cardiovascular disease had an average score of 23.9. A score of 26 or higher is considered typical, while a score of 22 is considered average for people with mild cognitive impairment.
Of the total participants, 656 people had brain scans to look at white matter hyperintensities and white matter integrity. White matter hyperintensities typically indicate vascular injury to the brain’s white matter. After adjusting for cardiovascular risk factors such as diabetes and high blood pressure, researchers found that early cardiovascular disease was associated with more white matter hyperintensities in the brain as well as higher white matter mean diffusivity, which indicates a decrease in brain tissue integrity.
Researchers discovered that early cardiovascular disease was associated with a three times greater likelihood of accelerated cognitive decline over five years in participants who had two sets of cognitive tests 25 and 30 years into the study, with 13% of people with early cardiovascular disease experiencing accelerated cognitive decline compared to 5% of people who did not have the disease.
“Our findings suggest that a person’s twenties and thirties are critical years to start protecting brain health through cardiovascular disease prevention and intervention,” Jiang said. “By preventing these diseases, we may be able to postpone the onset of cognitive decline and promote a healthier brain throughout life.”
A limitation of the study is that cognitive tests were not given at the start of the study.