The numbers don’t lie. After we turn 60, up to 8% of us will live with dementia. And now, one recent study has correlated both dementia and mild cognitive impairment with heart health—especially heart health for people in their 60s.
One in three American adults – and nearly two-thirds of adults age 60 and older – have high blood pressure, a prominent risk factor for heart disease and stroke—conditions among the current leading causes of death in the U.S. But high blood pressure (also called hypertension) can also impact brain health, especially as one enters their 60s. A recent study measured risk factors at five times in midlife through age 80.
The findings revealed that predicting a person’s future risk of dementia needs to be made at an individual level – considering age, sex, vascular risk burden and end-organ damage – but controlling high blood pressure, preventing diabetes, and following a healthy lifestyle in one’s 60s could help reduce the risk of developing dementia later on.
“Identifying early risk factors and early changes in the brain will have a major impact on future clinical and public health priorities related to the looming epidemic of dementia,” said Lenore J. Launer, PhD, chief of the Neuroepidemiology Section in National Institute Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Science. “Several studies based on older populations suggest midlife is an important period to start prevention measures. To date, control of blood pressure levels has been the most robust and promising candidate to target for prevention of future cognitive impairment.”
The head-heart connection
The brain is a vascular organ, hence the connection between blood pressure and the brain. While the brain represents only 2% of body mass, it receives 20% of the body’s blood supply. A vast network of blood vessels carries oxygen, glucose and other nutrients to brain cells, providing energy the brain needs to function.
But reduced or blocked blood flow harms the brain, and uncontrolled high blood pressure plays a part in damaging the organ. Over time, the force of blood pushing against arteries may cause blood vessels to become scarred, narrowed and diseased. High systolic blood pressure, the top number in blood pressure readings, is considered especially important.
“High blood pressure can lead to cerebrovascular damage – such as a major stroke, series of small strokes, white and gray matter shrinkage, and microinfarcts (tiny areas of dead brain tissue) – and possibly the plaques and tangles typical of Alzheimer’s disease that contribute to cognitive decline,” Launer said.
7 high blood pressure risk factors
By assessing the following risk factors and taking steps to address them in your 60s, you’ll reduce your chances of developing cognitive decline or dementia in later years.
1. Excess salt
According to the American Heart Association, more than 1,500 milligrams per day can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—regardless of age, current health condition or family history.
2. Sleep apnea
The condition causes oxygen levels to decrease during sleep, resulting in increased blood pressure and stress on the heart and lungs.
Being overweight is linked to development of many chronic diseases, including high blood pressure.
4. Sedentary lifestyle
Lack of exercise can lead to weight gain, which places undue pressure on the heart.
5. Drugs and alcohol
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol (binge drinking in particular) or using recreational drugs can stress the heart and arteries.
6. Poor diet
In addition to sodium sensitivity, obesity and diabetes are linked to sugar and fat-laden diets, which are linked to high blood pressure. Instead, try one of these foods that have been scientifically proven to help lower blood pressure naturally.
Smoking clogs the arteries and is strongly linked to heart disease.
What you can do now to assess your cardiac risk
The AHA recommends the following screenings beginning at age 45:
- Blood pressure check at each regular health care visit or at least once per year if blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg
- Cholesterol – known as a “fasting lipoprotein profile” – to measure total, HDL and LDL cholesterol, done every four to six years for normal-risk adults and more often if you have elevated risk for heart disease and stroke
- Weight/body mass index (BMI) during your regular health care visit
- Waist circumference as needed to help evaluate cardiovascular risk if your BMI is greater than or equal to 25 kg/m2
- Blood glucose test at least every three years
While scientists continue studying high blood pressure and dementia correlation, current midlife recommendations include lifestyle changes and regular blood pressure monitoring to reduce these risks.
Life’s Essential 8
Life’s Essential 8 is defined by the American Heart Association as the eight risk factors that people can improve through lifestyle changes demonstrated to improve cardiovascular health:
- Manage blood pressure – High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Maintaining blood pressure within a healthy range, reduces strain on heart, arteries and kidneys.
- Control cholesterol – High cholesterol contributes to plaque, which clogs arteries and leads to heart disease and stroke. Controlling cholesterol helps arteries remain clear of blockages.
- Reduce blood sugar – Food we eat is turned into glucose (or blood sugar) used for energy. Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves.
- Get active – Daily physical activity increases the length and quality of life.
- Eat better – A healthy diet is the best weapon for fighting cardiovascular disease.
- Lose weight – Shedding extra fat and unnecessary pounds reduces the burden on the heart, lungs, blood vessels and skeleton.
- Quit smoking – Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do for your health.
- Get adequate sleep – Getting fewer than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults means a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.