If it's good for your heart, it's good for your brain, too.
This is the main message from a new study showing that seven heart-healthy habits can lower your chances of developing dementia down the road. This list includes being active, eating better, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, having healthy blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, and keeping blood sugar (or "glucose") levels in the normal range.
Exactly how these healthy habits lower risk for dementia isn't fully understood, but they likely all work together, said study author Pamela Rist, an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston.
“There are lots of health benefits from eating a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity including blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose control, and keeping body mass index [a measurement of body fat based on height and weight] in the healthy range,” Rist said.
“High blood pressure often leads to other subclinical markers of disease in the brain that are associated with dementia,” Rist said. Diabetes and high cholesterol may also increase risk of dementia.
For the study, the researchers followed more than 13,700 women (average age: 54) for 20 years. During this time, 13% of the women developed dementia.
Women in the study received a score of zero for poor or intermediate health and one point for ideal health for each of the seven factors for a possible total score of 7.
Average score at the outset was 4.3; a decade later, it was 4.2, the study showed. For every one-point increase, dementia risk dropped by 6% after accounting for factors like age and education that influence the risk.
The more bad habits you cross off the list, the lower your risk for dementia, Rist said. Not all risks for dementia can be modified, such as your genes, so it's important to take steps to change the ones you can, she advised.
There are other healthy lifestyle factors that may further lower your risk for dementia that aren't on the list, such as continuing education through life, being engaged in social activity and getting good quality sleep, she added.
“This is the initial seven, and an area of future research is to see if other things can be added to the list,” Rist explained.
Her advice? “Look at this list, and if there is something you aren't doing that you should be, start doing it,” she said. For example, focus on taking steps to lower your blood pressure if it is high, or quit smoking.
The researchers didn't look at how changes such as quitting smoking influenced the risk of dementia later in life.
Yuko Hara, director of aging and Alzheimer's prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation in New York City, called the findings "encouraging."
"[They are] very much in line with the literature about lifestyle risk factors for dementia,” she said.
“The heart pumps blood to the brain, and the blood vessels and vascular system have to be healthy and in good shape for the brain to receive oxygen and nutrients needed for proper functioning,” Hara said.
There are other modifiable risks for dementia that go beyond heart health, including alleviating stress, getting good quality sleep and staying connected socially, she added.
The preliminary study was released Feb. 27 and the findings are scheduled for presentation at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology on April 22 to 27 in Boston and online. Findings presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The American Academy of Neurology has more on dementia.
SOURCES: Pamela Rist, ScD, associate epidemiologist, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston; Yuko Hara, PhD, director, aging and Alzheimer's prevention, Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, New York City; study abstract, American Academy of Neurology annual meeting, Boston and online, April 22 to 27, 2023