Health

Dementia and Heart Health: Are They Related?

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Eating nutritious foods, being physically active, managing high blood pressure and high cholesterol — you probably already know that those healthy habits can prevent heart disease. 

But that’s not the only reason to embrace a healthy lifestyle. The choices you make every day affect your head as well as your heart.

 “There is increasing evidence connecting cardiovascular risk factors with brain health,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Seth Martin, M.D., M.H.S., associate director of the Lipid Clinic at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease.

Photo of Dr. Seth Shay Martin

Dementia Risk Factors

Dementia touches millions of lives. Alzheimer’s disease affects roughly one in nine adults older than 65 in the United States. It often starts as mild cognitive impairment, which is marked by subtle but measurable changes in memory and thinking skills.

Family history and genetics can increase your risk of cognitive decline, but lifestyle factors contribute, too. 

Obesity, smoking, diabeteshigh blood pressure and high cholesterol are all risk factors for dementia. High cholesterol in midlife, in particular, seems to be strongly linked to cognitive decline.

Scientists are still exploring the causes of dementia, but unhealthy arteries are thought to play a role in both heart disease and cognitive problems, says Martin.

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Reducing Your Risk of Alzheimer’s

Research suggests that one out of three cases of Alzheimer’s disease may be preventable. Neurologist Rebecca Gottesman, M.D., Ph.D., will discuss the factors we can control to reduce our risk of developing dementia during a panel discussion at A Woman’s Journey — Baltimore, a daylong women’s health event in November.

Cut Your Risk of Dementia

On the positive side, taking control of those factors early might reduce the odds of dementia later in life. Though it’s too soon to say that medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol can prevent dementia, Martin says, some studies have shown those treatments are associated with a lower dementia risk.

 “Make sure you know your numbers and get heart disease risk factors under control” through lifestyle changes and medication, he says.

Better yet, take steps to prevent risk factors in the first place. “The best thing you can do is think about this early, before you might need medication for those risk factors,” Martin explains. “Establish healthy habits early to give yourself the best outcomes.”

He recommends teaming up with friends and family to make those healthy changes together. “Enlist loved ones in your quest to get healthy. It can be hard to do alone, but fun and more successful when you team up with others in your life,” Martin says. “It’s within your power to take control of your lifestyle.”

Your head and heart will thank you.

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