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The Brain-Heart Connection: Can Poor Heart Health Increase Risk of Dementia?

January 18, 2022Neelem Sheikh

The heart pumps approximately 20 to 25 percent of the blood in your body to your head with every beat. From here, your brain cells use at least 20 percent of the oxygen and food carried by the blood. Your brain relies heavily on your heart to function properly—a healthy heart ensures that a sufficient amount of blood is pumped to the brain, while healthy blood vessels ensure the oxygen-rich blood reaches the brain.

Research has continued to further our understanding of the connection between the cardiovascular system and the brain. This link, known as the brain-heart connection, has deepened our knowledge of how to reduce the risk of developing dementia and neurological diseases, provide early intervention for at-risk individuals, and improve the clinical management of patients.

Let’s take a closer look into the brain-heart connection, heart health and dementia risk, and positive lifestyle changes you can make today to promote heart and brain health.

The Brain-Heart Connection and Dementia

The risk of developing several causes of dementia, such as vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, is believed to be increased by several conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels. 

Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are the two most common causes of dementia, both of which can be linked back to poor heart health, in addition to several other risk factors. In general, vascular dementia is caused by conditions that reduce blood flow to the brain, such as stroke, brain hemorrhages, or chronically damaged or narrowed blood vessels in the brain or at any location in the body. 

Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, has a more complex pathology and is believed to be multifactorial, meaning it is not caused by a single factor, but rather develops from a combination of several factors, such as genetics, environment, and lifestyle. However, vascular conditions, as well as risk factors for vascular conditions, have been identified as risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Vascular-Related Risk Factors for Dementia

Vascular conditions, including stroke and heart disease, and other health problems known to increase the risk of developing vascular conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, have been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, including diabetes, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, depression, and low educational attainment, contribute to up to half of Alzheimer’s cases globally (17.2 million) and in the U.S. (2.9 million). Researchers projected that if a 10 to 25 percent reduction in all seven risk factors were to take place, it could potentially prevent as many as 1.1 to 3 million cases worldwide and 184,000 to 492,000 cases in the U.S.

Recognizing and addressing risk factors at a young age can greatly reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life. 

Lifestyle Changes to Promote Heart and Brain Health

What is good for your heart is good for your brain—making positive lifestyle changes that improve heart health can also improve brain health. It’s never too early or too late to make meaningful changes. Here’s what you can do to control vascular risk factors and promote brain health:

  • Control your blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Stay active and exercise daily for 30 to 60 minutes.
  • Get diabetes under control.
  • Find ways to manage your stress.

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