New study finds common health problem at age 36 is linked to dementia

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One of the primary goals of dementia research is to uncover the mechanisms that contribute to brain decline as early on as possible. This buys precious time to intervene before it’s too late. New research published in the journal The Lancet Healthy Longevity advances this effort.

Researchers found that worse cardiovascular health at age 36 can predict a higher brain age and associated cognitive problems later in life.

The researchers applied an established MRI based machine learning model to estimate the brain age of members of the Alzheimer’s Research UK-funded Insight 46 study, led by Professor Schott.

Insight 46 study members are drawn from the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD) 1946 British Birth Cohort. As the participants had been a part of the study throughout their lives, the researchers were able to compare their current brain ages to various factors from across the life course.

The participants were all between 69 and 72 years old, but their estimated brain ages ranged from 46 to 93.

The researchers were able to explain roughly one third of the variability in brain age by reviewing various factors from across the life course.

People with worse cardiovascular health at age 36 or 69 had worse brain health, as did those with increased cerebrovascular disease on MRI (relating to blood flow and blood vessels in the brain).

This aligns with a previous study led by Professor Schott finding that high blood pressure at age 36 predicted poorer brain health late in life.

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What explains this link?

According to Doctor Bal Athwal, Consultant Neurologist at The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK, current research has shown that there is a so-called “heart-brain link”, connecting our cardiovascular and brain health.

He explained: “The heart pumps blood through vessels to every part of your body, including your brain. Damage to blood vessels is known to lead to serious health conditions, not only those commonly associated with poor heart health such as heart attacks and coronary heart disease, but also those linked to the brain, like stroke and dementia.”

According to the doc, vascular dementia – one of the most common forms of dementia – is thought to be the result of reduced blood flow to the brain, which can damage brain cells, sometimes leading to the death of cells.

“This reduced blood flow can sometimes, but not always, be caused by the blockage of blood vessels,” he noted.

A stroke happens when blood vessels cause a blockage, and a region of the brain is deprived of its blood supply.

According to Doctor Athwal, there can also be a longer-term process of degeneration of small blood vessels leading to “inefficiency of the microcirculation that feeds nutrients and oxygen to the brain’s cells”.

This seems to be a process that affects the walls of blood vessels, he said.

“We do not fully understand why this occurs, but factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and genetic factors seem to play a part.”

Doctor Athwal continued: “The underlying problem is usually in blood vessels that nourish the brain itself, and the damage is due to these blood vessels not being able to supply enough nutrients and oxygen to the brain cells.

“Therefore, keeping your blood vessels healthy can help you maintain both a strong heart and brain.”

How to boost your heart health

The same lifestyle factors that are recommended to prevent heart disease are also advised to reduce your risk of dementia.

There are several ways you can look after your heart, such as lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

“Combining a healthy diet with regular exercise is the best way of maintaining a healthy weight,” says the NHS.

As the health body explains, having a healthy weight reduces your chances of developing high blood pressure.

Regular exercise will also make your heart and blood circulatory system more efficient, lower your cholesterol level, and also keep your blood pressure at a healthy level, it adds.

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