Good heart health during middle age can lower the risk of dementia later in life

SOLNA, Sweden — Many people believe in the saying that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind. A new study finds a healthy heart may also lead a clearer mind. Researchers from Sweden and Finland say good heart health during middle age can lower the risk of developing dementia later in life.

Findings show that those who quit smoking, eat healthily, and exercise in their middle years all boosted their chances of avoiding the degenerative condition. The study looked at nearly 1,500 people who are part of a long-term review which started in 1972 in Finland.

Researchers confirmed previous theories that changeable behavior such as dieting and smoking can benefit brain health in old age.

“Maintaining life-long health behaviors may be crucial to reduce late-life risk of dementia,” researchers write in their report. “Very few studies have explored the patterns of cardiovascular health (CVH) metrics in midlife and late life in relation to risk of dementia. We examined the associations of composite CVH metrics from midlife to late life with risk of incident dementia.”

Living better can lead to better mental function

Previous research suggested that global dementia numbers could be cut by a third if patients eliminate such changeable risks. However, until the current study there was a lack of evidence on potential links between risk of late-life dementia and scores on standard heart health metrics in mid to late life.

The team analyzed data on 1,449 participants in the Finnish Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging, and Dementia study from 1972 to 1987. Researchers also examined 744 of the dementia-free survivors of this study through their later years from 2005 to 2008.

The new study evaluated each participant’s heart health from midlife to old age according to six factors. Three of these are behavioral (smoking status, physical activity, and body mass index) while the other three are biological (fasting plasma glucose, total cholesterol, and blood pressure).

Study authors diagnosed 61 people with dementia in the first follow-up and an additional 47 patients in the second. The researchers reveal that participants with intermediate or ideal cardiovascular health scores from midlife onwards, especially for behavioral factors, have a lower risk of cognitive decline in old age than participants with poor scores.

Heart health later in life is less of a dementia factor

The study finds no significant overall association between heart health scores measured late in life and dementia risk. However, when looking specifically at biological factors, ideal scores during late life are actually associated with greater risk of dementia.

“Low blood pressure and low cholesterol are also common in patients with dementia, and in this sense these values overlap each other in this context,” the paper’s first author Yajun Liang from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden says in a university release.

Study authors note that the major limitations of this study include the lack of data on diet and midlife plasma glucose, and high rate of attrition.

The findings appear in the journal PLOS Medicine.

SWNS writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.