Cardiovascular risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure and elevated blood glucose in relatively young adults are linked to a higher rate of cognitive decline decades later, according to new research published in the journal Neurology.
To look at the impact of past cardiovascular health on cognitive decline in older adults, researchers pooled the data from four different long-term studies involving adults ages 18 to 95. They looked at the trends in certain measurements over the course of participants’ lives, including systolic blood pressure (the pressure during heartbeats, or the “top number”), body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account), total blood cholesterol and fasting blood glucose. As part of the study, older adults took cognitive exams that measured both global (overall) cognition, and mental processing speed in particular. Global cognition also includes factors like language ability, memory and spatial reasoning (the ability to visualize objects in space).
To get cutting-edge diabetes news, strategies for blood glucose management, nutrition tips, healthy recipes, and more delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our free newsletter!
Heart health in earlier adulthood linked to later cognitive performance
When the researchers compared the trajectories of cardiovascular risk factors over decades of life with later-in-life cognitive performance, they found that elevated blood pressure, fasting glucose and BMI — but not total cholesterol — at all stages of life were linked to greater cognitive decline later on. Perhaps even more surprising was that the strongest link to later-in-life cognitive decline was seen in people with cardiovascular risk factors in earlier adulthood, or a person’s 20s and 30s. This finding suggests that the biological processes that lead to cognitive decline start early in life, and that developing cardiovascular risk factors later in life may not have the same impact on cognitive health.
Elevated cardiovascular risk factors in early adulthood were linked to about twice the rate of cognitive decline in later adulthood, affecting both global cognition and processing speed. When the same cardiovascular risk factors were elevated in later life, they were linked to greater cognitive decline in “early late-life,” or before age 80, but were actually linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline after age 80. Even after adjusting for overall cardiovascular risk factors across the decades — to account for the possibility that people who develop cardiovascular risk factors early or late in life may also simply have more of them overall — the links between cardiovascular risk factors at different ages and cognitive decline remained.
These results, the researchers wrote, indicate that it may be especially important to detect and treat cardiovascular risk factors in early adulthood to help prevent cognitive decline later in life. For people aren’t aware of or don’t address these risk factors until middle age or later in life, it may be too late to substantially reduce the risk of cognitive decline in later adulthood.
Of course, this doesn’t mean at all that you should ignore cardiovascular risk factors as you get older, since how well you control your blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels can have a large impact on your cardiovascular health as you get older, affecting your risk for health conditions including coronary artery disease (CAD), and peripheral arterial disease (PAD) or experiencing a heart attack or stroke.
Living with type 2 diabetes? Check out our free type 2 e-course!