Because the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease is so frightening, it’s natural to wonder about your chances of developing this brain-destroying condition – and what you can do about reducing your risk.
Well, it turns out that as researchers focus on uncovering physical factors that influence brain health and Alzheimer’s risk, they’re also finding that those factors are not written in stone.
New research confirms what we’ve often reported in this newsletter – that to a large degree, you can take the fate of your brain into your own hands and whittle down the odds that your mental powers will dim as you get older.
One of the latest studies in this area reveals specific ways that your risk for Alzheimer’s disease is influenced by your lifestyle.
Researchers examined 21 years of health information gathered on 1,588 people who were taking part in research for the Rush Memory and Aging Project. These people had MRI scans of their brains performed periodically, they underwent a wide range of blood tests and other medical analyses, and they took yearly quizzes to measure memory recall and other cognitive abilities.
As part of the research, the scientists compiled what is called a “Framingham General Cardiovascular Risk Score” for every participant in the study. This algorithm is derived from the long-term Framingham study of heart health.
This method of gauging risk takes into account a person’s age, gender, whether they smoke, their blood pressure, the hypertension medication they may be taking, whether or not they have diabetes, and other factors affecting whether they’ll have a heart attack or some other cardiovascular problem in the future.
Your Heart Health is Related to Your Memory Health
When researchers looked at how people’s cognitive abilities fared over the years, they found that those who had the highest risk of cardiovascular problems – and the worst Cardiovascular Risk Scores – had the greatest loss in episodic memory, working memory and perceptual speed over the two decades of this study.
Brain scans showed that each high risk person also tended to have a smaller hippocampus (a memory center in the brain), less gray matter (involved in hearing, memory, emotions and speech), as well as more damage to white matter (the part of the brain that contains nerve fibers involved in learning.)1
Besides all that, the high-risk people had smaller brains overall – and brain shrinkage is a bad omen for brain health.
Weaker Heart, Weaker Memory
The research confirms other studies at Vanderbilt University that revealed how your heart’s pumping power is directly linked to your memory function.
These scientists found that if your heart weakens even a little bit, that impaired heart pumping function results in memory loss and other cognitive complications.2 The Vanderbilt study involved about 300 people aged 30 to 92 and measured their heart’s global longitudinal strain, a sensitive measurement that can reveal even minor weakening of the heart.
The Vanderbilt scientists theorized that when the heart pumps less blood to the brain, it compromises the blood-brain barrier – permitting destructive substances to bypass this protective shield. As a result, more toxins invade brain tissue and damage the brain’s neurons.
In addition, the reduced blood flow to the brain may limit the proteins available to maintain neuronal synapses that tie together the neural networks necessary for healthy memory function.
Plus, the study showed that, in particular, less blood flow to the brain impacts the temporal lobes – brain areas crucial for understanding speech and the ability to carry on conversations.
What These Studies Mean
If you want your brain to be healthy, you need to make your heart healthy. For a healthy heart you need consistent exercise and a diet filled with fruits and vegetables and very little processed food.
Reassuringly, it’s never too late to start improving your cardiovascular system.
For instance, a 20-year study in Norway showed that folks with questionable cardiovascular fitness who improved their heart health over the years enjoyed a reduced risk of developing dementia and memory problems comparable to the people who started the study with good cardiovascular health and maintained it throughout the research.3
So even if you haven’t been off the couch in years, and your relationship with healthy food has only grown worse due to the coronavirus pandemic, you can still get moving toward a stronger heart and brain. Start today, it’s worth the effort!