Research has shown that an active and healthy lifestyle not only benefits your overall health but may help reduce your risk for developing Alzheimer's and other dementias. Physical and intellectual activity is important for a healthy lifestyle. Reading, doing crossword puzzles, solving math problems, painting and creative writing are all examples of activities that can promote mental alertness. Outdoor activities and physical exercise play a role in overall health and in brain health.
Many scientists have studied the different risk factors for heart disease, while others have researched risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. These researchers are beginning to realize that many of the risk factors that are common to heart disease are also associated with Alzheimer’s. Little is known as to why, when faced with a particular risk factor, one person will develop heart disease, another Alzheimer’s, while a third might have both problems. Until this medical riddle is solved, there is important information that everyone should know about controlling certain risk factors and therefore possibly reducing the risk for both heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Some of the Shared Risk Factors for Heart Disease and Alzheimer’s disease include:
- High Cholesterol
- High Blood Pressure
- Lack of Exercise
- High Homocysteine Levels
High Cholesterol: High cholesterol is often cited as the most predictive condition related to heart disease. High cholesterol in midlife has also been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease in later life. Research indicates that controlling high cholesterol in older adults can lessen memory problems. Additionally, the use of drugs called “statins”, which lower cholesterol levels, and are often cited as a way to prevent heart disease, have been associated with lower incidence of memory problems in older adults.
High cholesterol is not only damaging to the heart---it is damaging to the brain. Controlling your cholesterol level may decrease your risk for both heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
High Blood Pressure: Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is also a significant risk factor for heart disease. Some researchers have found a relationship between hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease, while others find no association with Alzheimer’s disease, but do find a link between hypertension and vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is often caused by either a significant stroke or a series of small, sometimes unnoticed strokes. As with statins, the use of antihypertensive medication appears to reduce the effects of hypertension on memory in later life.
Diabetes: Diabetes is associated with a significantly increased risk for heart disease. Recent research has also identified diabetes as a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. This seems to be especially true for the African American community, which also has higher rates for diabetes. Managing one’s diabetes has important health implications. Heart disease and Alzheimer’s are only two possible negative outcomes for uncontrolled diabetes.
Lack of Exercise: Lack of regular exercise is often linked to heart disease. There is evidence that the benefits of regular exercise are related to the reductions of obesity, high cholesterol, and perhaps hypertension. Regular exercise has been recognized as a way to decrease the risk for developing heart disease. There is now some research indicating that regular physical exercise is associated with lower levels of cognitive dysfunction in later life. At this point it is unknown whether the association is related to a corresponding reduction of cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight, or if exercise alone benefits cognition.
Smoking: Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. The medical community is absolutely certain that smoking often leads to significant heart disease. There is also some scientific evidence that smoking is related to a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease in later life. While nicotine patches are sometimes prescribed to patients with Alzheimer’s as a stimulant, there are vascular changes associated with smoking. It may be that the act of smoking damages the vascular pathways of the brain, resulting in memory problems in old age. The research is clear; smoking leads to significant risk for heart disease and also for Alzheimer’s.
Obesity: Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States, second only to smoking. Obesity is directly and proportionally related to heart disease. Obesity is also related to higher cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. Researchers have also found that people who are obese, with normal levels of cholesterol and blood pressure are still at risk for heart disease. Researchers have also been able to connect obesity to cognitive decline and memory impairment.
High Homocysteine Levels: High homocysteine levels are associated with heart disease and have also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Homocysteine is a chemical found in the bloodstream. You can lower your homocysteine levels by eating fruits and vegetables, and taking a B complex vitamin with folic acid. Always remember to talk with your physician before adding a vitamin supplement, to make certain it will not interact with the medications you are taking.
Summary: The scientific literature is clear…reducing your risk of heart disease will not only help your heart, but may help your cognition, and lower your risk for developing Alzheimer’s. The things you need to do are the things you already know are important for a healthy lifestyle. Eat a balanced diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables, take your vitamins, exercise regularly, manage your weight, stop smoking, and keep your blood pressure, blood sugars, and cholesterol in check. Reducing your risks for heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease are within your reach.