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Cognitive Decline in Middle Age Linked More Strongly to Cardiovascular Health in Women

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Cognitive Decline in Middle Age Linked More Strongly to Cardiovascular Health in Women

Having cardiovascular conditions in middle age may lead to greater cognitive decline in women than in men, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

Researchers have long known that cardiovascular health is closely linked to cognitive health, including the risk for cognitive decline and dementia. For example, a person’s resting heart rate in older age is linked to the risk for developing dementia, as is a person’s cholesterol level in middle age. Having type 2 diabetes — especially if blood glucose is poorly controlled, or if the duration of diabetes is longer — is also linked to a higher risk for dementia.

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But how these health conditions may effect men and women differently when it comes to the risk of developing dementia is still an unsettled topic. It may be important for women or men to know if their dementia risk is greater because there are many steps people can take to reduce that risk — including taking steps to promote good sleep, reducing exposure to air pollution, avoiding inflammation-promoting foods, and even drinking tea or coffee.

For the latest study, researchers looked at 1,857 participants in the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, who were between 50 and 69 years old at the start of the study. Every 15 months — until they died or dropped out of the study — participants underwent a neurologic evaluation and neuropsychological testing, which let the researchers identify cognitive decline. Nine different neuropsychological tests were used to evaluate both overall cognitive function and the specific areas of memory, language, executive function, and visuospatial skills. The researchers also used participants’ health records to identify cardiovascular conditions — like coronary artery disease, heart rhythm disorders, or congestive heart failure — along with risk factors for cardiovascular problems including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, abnormal blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels, and ever having smoked.

Cardiovascular conditions more strongly linked to cognitive function in women

Overall, 1,465 participants (70%) had at least one cardiovascular condition or risk factor. Men were more likely than women to have a cardiovascular condition or risk factor, with 83% having at least one compared with 75% of women. The researchers found that most cardiovascular conditions were more strongly linked to cognitive function in women — and, in fact, coronary artery disease and most other cardiovascular conditions were linked to overall cognitive decline in women, but not in men. Diabetes, abnormal blood lipids, and coronary artery disease were also linked to a decline in language ability in women, but not in men. Congestive heart failure, though, was linked to a decline in language ability in men, but not in women. Coronary artery disease and ever smoking were were linked to a a decline in visuospatial skills — that is, the ability to picture and remember objects in space — in both men and women.

“Specific cardiovascular conditions and risk factors have stronger associations with cognition decline in mid-life for women than men despite the higher prevalence of those conditions in men,” the researchers concluded. More research on this topic is needed, though, before any sex-specific guidelines are adopted to optimize prevention of dementia in people with cardiovascular disease or cardiovascular risk factors.

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

Quinn Phillips on social media

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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