Published on: November 16, 2015
by Women’s Brian Health Initiative:
The link between heart and brain is not that surprising when you consider how your body works. Research shows that what is good for your heart is also good for your brain. Epidemiological studies examining how often diseases develop in different groups of people and why – show that people who have cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure may be at greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
The Role of Circulation
Your brain is one of the most active organs in your body. Although it comprises only about two percent of your total body weight, it receives 15 to 20 percent of your body’s blood supply. Supplying blood to your brain is crucial for your cardiovascular system. Blood provides the oxygen and nutrients your brain needs to function properly, and it also serves as a tool for cleaning up, removing unwanted materials from your brain. Clearly, the reliable, steady flow of blood to your brain is critical.
There are many conditions that damage your heart or blood vessels and impact the circulation of blood in your body. It makes sense that anything reducing blood flow in your body will have an impact on your highly blood-dependent brain.
Let’s take a look at some of the latest research that examines the connection between your heart and your brain more closely.
Research performed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN and published online on February 19, 2015 in Circulation, suggests that having a healthier heart, as measured by cardiac index, could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. (Cardiac index is a measure that reflects the amount of blood the heart pumps each minute, according to the person’s body size. A low cardiac index value indicates there is less blood leaving the heart.) The study found that participants with decreased heart function, i.e., a low cardiac index, were two to three times more likely to develop significant memory loss. Given that one out of three participants in the study met the medical definition for low cardiac index, these findings are of great concern. This study marks the first time that cardiac index has been recognized as a risk factor for significant memory loss or dementia.
Researchers emphasize that the findings only point to a risk factor and do not necessarily suggest a method for preventing dementia, although leading a heart healthy lifestyle certainly has the potential to help.
A study by Brigham Young University in Utah, published on June 2014, found that adults with poor heart health are more likely to develop cognitive problems as they age. Researchers determined the initial cardiovascular health of the participants based on the American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 Score. This score summarizes cardiovascular health in seven key areas: smoking status, healthy diet, physical activity, body mass index, blood pressure, total cholesterol, and fasting glucose. Cognitive function was determined by a series of tests, such as learning a list of 10 words and then having to recall them several minutes later, or naming as many animals as possible in 60 seconds. They found that participants with the lowest cardiovascular health scores were more likely to show impairment on learning, memory and verbal fluency tests than participants with intermediate or ideal heart health. Specifically, 4.6 percent of those with the worst heart health showed cognitive impairment four years later versus only 2.7 percent of those with intermediate heart health scores and 2.6 percent of those with ideal heart health scores.
A Mayo Clinic study released in January 2013 found that cardiac disease is associated with increased risk of non-amnestic mild cognitive impairment (MCI) such as problems with language, thinking and judgement; non-amnestic means that this form of MCI does not include memory loss but may be a precursor to later forms of dementia. Among the participants who did not have any MCI at the beginning, 669 had heart disease and 781 did not. Among the group with heart disease, 8.8 percent developed non-amnestic MCI compared to 4.4 percent of the group without heart disease. An interesting finding was that the association with cardiac disease and MCI appeared together more often among women than men.
A study published in December 2013 in the Journal of the American Heart Association looked specifically at the connection between heart and brain health in older women. It found that heart disease may put older women at higher risk for decreased brain function. Neurocognitive exams were conducted with almost 6,500 US women aged 65 to 79 who had healthy brain function at the beginning of the study. Research discovered that postmenopausal women with heart disease or vascular disease were 29 percent more likely to experience cognitive decline over time than women without heart disease. Different types of heart disease or vascular disease were found to be associated with differing risks for declining brain function; women who had a heart attack, for example, were found to have double the risk of cognitive decline compared to women who had not.
More research is needed to completely understand the connection between heart disease and dementia. Such research is particularly important because while heart disease can be reversible, the damage caused by dementia is not. In the meantime, since we do know that heart health is a modifiable risk factor, it makes sense to engage in a heart healthy lifestyle as part of your efforts to keep your brain healthy longer.
There are many similarities in the symptoms of cardiovascular disease in women and men, but there are also many important differences. Women need to be aware of the symptoms they should be watching for so they can act quickly if any are noticed. This is important, as heart disease is often “silent” in women and not diagnosed until the symptoms of heart attack, arrhythmia, heart failure or stroke appear.
Heart disease symptoms: chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath.
Arrhythmia symptoms: fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations).
Heart failure symptoms: shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet/ankles/legs/abdomen.
Stroke symptoms: sudden weakness, paralysis or numbness of the face/arms/legs especially on one side of the body, confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, difficulty seeing in one or both eyes, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, loss of consciousness, or sudden and severe headache.
Although cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, is often thought of as a “man’s disease,” women are affected in vast numbers as well. It is the leading cause of death for women in the world, resulting in 8.6 million deaths each year; that’s one in three female deaths. The World Heart Federation and its member organizations have spearheaded a global campaign, Go Red for Women, to ensure that everyone recognizes that cardiovascular disease is just as much a “woman’s disease”. The campaign also provide education about preventing, diagnosing and controlling heart disease and stroke in women. (You can check out the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women website at: https://www.goredforwomen.org/.)
Take action to reduce risk
To reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, women are advised to:
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