A new study published by the University of Oxford suggests that the key to avoiding dementia may be a healthy heart.
A joint investigation by Oxford University and University College London examined links between aortic stiffening and cognitive health. It concluded that faster stiffening of the aorta (the main artery carrying blood away from the heart) was linked to a lower blood supply to the brain, weaker connectivity between the regions of the brain, and memory loss.
The study involved 542 participants, whose aortic stiffness was measured at both 64 and 68 years of age. This was then compared to the results of MRI scans and cognitive tests. The researchers not only concluded that there was a link between the two, but also that making changes earlier in an individual’s life could help delay the effects of aortic stiffening, and so reduce the risk of diseases such as dementia later in life.
Dr Sana Suri, the University of Oxford’s Alzheimers Society Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry, said “Our study links heart health with brain health, and gives us insights into the potential of reducing aortic stiffening to help maintain brain health in older ages. Reduced connectivity between different brain regions is an early marker of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and preventing these changes by reducing or slowing down the stiffening of our body’s large blood vessels may be one way to maintain brain health and memory as we grow older.”
Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure are particularly vulnerable to aortic stiffening. However, lifestyle factors such as smoking can also play a role. The risks associated with stiffening arteries can be mitigated by a healthy diet and increased levels of exercise, as well as by medical treatments.
Dr Scott Chiesa, Research Associate at the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science, agreed with Dr Suri.
“With no cure for dementia, there is an increased focus on understanding how to prevent or delay its onset. Importantly, our study helps us understand when in the lifespan it will be best to target and improve cardiovascular health to benefit the brain.”
The study was funded by the Alzheimer’s Society. Its head of research, Dr Richard Oakley, said “Dementia devastates lives, and with the number of people with dementia set to rise to 1 million by 2025 and more families affected than ever before, reducing our risk has never been more important. This Alzheimer’s Society funded study didn’t look for a link between heart health and dementia directly, but it has shed important light on a connection between the health of our blood vessels and changes in the brain that indicate brain health.
“We know that what’s good for your heart is good for your head, and it’s exciting to see research that explores this link in more detail. But we need even more research to understand the impact of heart health on brain health as we age, and how that affects our own dementia risk. Alzheimer’s Society is committed to funding research into dementia prevention as well as research into a cure. But coronavirus has hit us hard, so it’s vital the Government honours its commitment to double dementia research spending to continue research like this.”
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