Heart, Brain Health Linked in Older Women

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September 17, 2014


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Keeping your heart healthy is a great way to keep your body – and your brain – healthy, say researchers. This is especially true for older women. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association revealed that postmenopausal women with heart disease were at higher risk for dementia.

In their study of nearly 6,500 U.S. women ages 65-79, researchers found postmenopausal women with heart disease were 29 percent more likely to experience cognitive decline over time compared with women without heart disease. The risk of mental decline was about twice as high among women who had suffered a heart attack as it was among those who had not. And women with a history of coronary bypass surgery, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, peripheral vascular disease or carotid endarterectomy also were at increased risk for cognitive impairment.

Experts say that the same risk factors that lead to heart disease, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and smoking, also can contribute to memory loss, vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. That’s because these risk factors can lead to atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the blood vessels – including those that supply blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain.

When your brain doesn’t get the blood flow it needs, it can begin to malfunction, causing problems with memory and cognitive function, says Israel Galtes, M.D., a cardiologist affiliated with Homestead Hospital and a member of the Baptist Health Quality Network. If blood flow to your brain is suddenly blocked, you could even have a stroke.

“It’s important to recognize the link between cardiovascular disease and dementia because cardiovascular disease is often preventable or treatable,” said Dr. Galtes. “By controlling your risk factors for heart disease, it may be possible to prevent cognitive decline.”

Experts say the factor that is the strongest predictor of brain health is hypertension, or high blood pressure, which also is the most significant risk factor for stroke. Hypertension is elevated pressure of the blood in the arteries. This pressure can injure blood vessels in the heart and brain.

Many women do not realize they have high blood pressure because it has no visible symptoms. For this reason, it’s often called “the silent killer.” It’s important to partner with your doctor to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level, Dr. Galtes advises.

High blood pressure can be controlled with lifestyle changes and medications. The American Heart Association recommends taking these heart-healthy steps:
• Eat a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein and fish.
• Maintain a healthy body weight.
• Get plenty of exercise.
• Avoid tobacco use.
• Limit alcohol intake.
• Manage stress.
• Take your medications regularly.

Although healthy behaviors should ideally start early in life, it’s never too late to make a difference in your health, says Dr. Galtes.

Just consider these factors: Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S., and stroke is the fourth leading cause of death and a major cause of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia among older adults, is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years. Almost two-thirds of American seniors living with Alzheimer’s are women, reports the Alzheimer’s Association. Researchers agree that more study is warranted on how preventing cardiovascular disease may preserve cognitive health.

“Following a healthy lifestyle can help you manage your blood pressure, improve your cardiovascular health and make a significant difference in your mental abilities as you age,” Dr. Galtes said.

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