Research finds heart disease risk factors may increase risk of brain disease

Neurologist says what’s good for the heart is good for the brain

Experts say that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain. Researchers are digging deeper to better understand the connection between heart and brain health.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, but the number of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is rising.

The American Heart Association says research finds many of the risk factors for heart disease may also increase the risk of brain disease.

“Things like high blood pressure, for example, even in midlife, and once (you reach your) 40s or 50s can double your risk of dementia. Obesity triples the risk of dementia,” said Dr. Mitchell Elkind, former president of the AHA. “So, because of all these new findings, we decided it was time to really take on brain health as well.”

Dr. Elkind is a neurologist who says what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

“It’s really kind of a sea change or a paradigm shift in how we think about brain disease, recognizing that blood vessel problems may contribute to those sorts of conditions as well,” Elkind said.

The heart association is devoting millions of dollars toward research into this brain-heart connection.

“We’ve had funding from Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, and also from the Gates Foundation, to help support research on the vascular contributions to neurodegenerative diseases and dementia,” Elkind said.

Read: How a focus on nutrition can help you ‘reclaim your rhythm’ this Heart Month

So, what’s the most important thing you can go to protect your heart and your brain?

“It’s to not smoke,” Elkind said. “So if you smoke already, then try to get help to quit. And if you don’t smoke, please don’t start.”

It’s also important to maintain a healthy blood pressure.

“It turns out that the risk for, say, dementia really is based on your blood pressure in midlife, not what it is toward the end of life, when the dementia is actually occurring. It’s what it is in midlife,” Elkind said. “Recent research, in fact, suggests that that timeline should, in fact, be pushed even earlier in one’s life.”

If you want to take one step today toward reducing your risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia: start exercising.

“That doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon, lift heavy weights and so forth,” Elkind said. “I tell my patients to go walking 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week.

“So, I think that would be a good place to start.”

Related: Steps you can take to jump-start your exercise routine this Heart Month

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.