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Dementia Risk Tied to Resting Heart Rate

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Dementia Risk Tied to Resting Heart Rate

Having a higher resting heart rate may help predict dementia in older adults, even after accounting for other cardiovascular risks, according to a new study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

A person’s resting heart rate — how many heartbeats they have per minute, when sitting or lying down for an extended period — is widely considered to be an overall indicator of cardiovascular health. But people with cardiovascular problems — many of which are known to raise the risk for dementia — often have several problems at once, so it can’t be assumed that any one measurement will help predict the risk for dementia. Since people with a higher resting heart rate often have other widely studied indicators of cardiovascular disease — like high blood pressure and abnormal blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels, resting heart rate hasn’t been studies much in the context of dementia — but for the latest study, researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden aimed to change that.

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The study included 2,147 participants ages 60 and older, who didn’t have dementia at the start of the study. They were followed during two different time periods — 2001-2004 and 2013-2016, with researchers taking a variety of measurements during each study period, including measuring their resting heart rate using an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). Dementia was assessed and diagnosed based on standard criteria. Overall cognitive function was measured using a test called the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE).

Higher resting heart rate linked to increased dementia risk

The researchers found that compared with a resting heart rate of 60-69 beats per minute (BPM), a rate of 80 BPM or higher was linked to 55% higher risk for developing dementia. This link remained significant even after excluding participants who had serious cardiovascular disease or who had experienced cardiovascular events like a stroke or heart attack from the analysis. The researchers also found that a resting heart rate of 80 BPM or higher was linked to a significant drop in overall cognitive function, after adjusting for a number of factors known to be linked to the risk for cognitive decline — including age, education level, physical activity, body weight, blood pressure, health history, and smoking status.

Since the link between resting heart rate and dementia remained significant even after adjusting for cardiovascular disease, “The association of elevated [resting heart rate] with dementia and cognitive decline may partially reflect pathophysiological pathways independent from vascular risk factors,” the researchers concluded. “Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that subclinical or undiagnosed [cardiovascular disease] may contribute to this association.” Regardless of what explains this link, the researchers noted that it’s fairly easy to measure someone’s resting heart rate, so it could be used to help assess the risk for dementia in various settings. It can also be managed through exercise and certain medications — although more studies are needed to find out what effect, if any, treating resting heart rate in particular has on the risk for dementia.

Want to learn more about maintaining cognitive health with diabetes? Read “Nine Tips to Keep Your Memory With Diabetes,” “Staying Sharp: Seven Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy With Diabetes,” “Keeping Your Brain Strong With Diabetes” and “Memory Fitness: How to Get It, How to Keep It.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

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A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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