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American Heart Month: Zeroing in on Dementia and Cardiovascular Health

February 9, 2021

While the focus this month is on cardiovascular health, it is important to keep in mind that what’s bad for the heart tends to also be bad for the brain. The brain is supplied by several blood vessels, all arising from the aorta, which pumps blood from the heart to the rest of the body. For example, if the heart is not pumping correctly, the brain cannot get its needed nutrients through the blood supply. Therefore, in order to take care of your brain, it is also important to take care of your heart.

Dementia is a chronic condition in which your ability to think slowly worsens, leading to memory loss, difficulty in performing day-to-day tasks, and loss of social function. Many studies have shown that people with poor cardiovascular health are more likely to develop dementia. But how can poor heart health lead to dementia?

Poor heart health likely means poor blood vessel health. 

  • Conditions that affect the heart, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and cigarette smoke, can also weaken and block blood vessels in the brain.
  • A blocked blood vessel can lead to a stroke, which can lead to the death of brain tissue.
  • People with poor cardiovascular health therefore can have less working brain tissue over time, leading to smaller functional brain area and eventually dementia.

Poor heart health leads to buildup of toxins in the brain.

  • The risk factors for cardiovascular disease mentioned above can cause a buildup of amyloid in the brain.
  • Amyloid buildup limits the brain cells’ ability to function.
  • Amyloid buildup is associated with loss of memory and the ability to perform day-to-day tasks as can be seen in Alzheimer disease. Amyloid can also build up in the blood vessels and lead to strokes, further resulting in brain tissue death.

Poor heart health can also be associated with Parkinson disease.

Parkinson disease is a progressive condition affecting your brain and nerves that affects your movements, causing tremor, difficulty walking, and rigidity.

  • Research has shown that Parkinson disease is more common in people with poor heart health.
  • The stress on the brain that can lead to Parkinson disease is also damaging to the heart and blood vessels.
  • People who have cardiovascular disease are more likely to have more trouble with walking and memory if they do develop Parkinson disease.
  • People with Parkinson disease are also more likely to develop cardiovascular disease as Parkinson disease also limits your ability to keep your blood pressure and heart rate at healthy levels.

Therefore, in order to keep the risk of dementia or Parkinson disease low, taking care of your heart and your blood vessels is crucial. The good news is that by maintaining a health low cholesterol and low sugar diet, exercising, controlling your blood pressure, and avoiding cigarette smoke, you can get a two-for-one: you can keep your heart healthy while also reducing your risk for dementia or Parkinson disease.

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