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What’s the connection between dementia and heart health?

What’s the link between dementia and heart health? Can having high cholesterol lead to developing Alzheimer’s? Can having high blood pressure or diabetes lead to vascular dementia? Learn more about the connection between heart health and brain health.

January 25, 2023

Becoming a little forgetful is a normal part of aging. We all occasionally misplace our car keys and forget the name of an acquaintance. But if you experience long memory gaps, wander and become lost or if your behavior changes drastically, these could be signs of dementia. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dementia is not a specific disease but is rather a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities. The different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, are complex and caused by various factors. And while all forms of dementia affect the brain, some forms may originate in the heart.

Increasing evidence shows that many heart disease risk factors are also dementia risk factors. Family history and genetics may indicate you are at risk, but many daily habits can significantly boost your cardiovascular and neurological health.

Read on to learn more about the connection between brain and heart health and what you can do to help prevent or slow the development of heart disease and dementia.

What’s the link between cholesterol and dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in older people and is progressive and incurable. It’s characterized by clumps in the brain called amyloid plaques, tangles of tau protein fibers and a loss of connection between brain cells.

So, how is Alzheimer’s disease connected to heart health? Cholesterol. Research shows that high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol in mid-life are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s over a decade later. Other studies determined that having high total cholesterol in middle-age increases the risk of Alzheimer’s later in life. Although experts debate whether the link between high total cholesterol is as strong as the link between high LDL cholesterol and dementia, experts and physicians agree that there is a connection between cholesterol and dementia. 

Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease share a genetic link. Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by molecules called lipoproteins. One of the molecular building blocks of lipoproteins are controlled by a gene called APOE. One version of this gene is known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. 

Research continues to be conducted to examine the relationship between high cholesterol levels and the changes in the brain that cause dementia. 

Vascular dementia and heart disease: Are they related?

High cholesterol isn’t the only heart health risk factor linked to dementia. Risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, smoking and diabetes as well as high cholesterol, can cause vascular dementia, the second-most common type of dementia in people over 65.

Vascular dementia is caused by small strokes. Its symptoms are very similar to Alzheimer’s, and it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. However, people with long-standing hypertension are most often diagnosed with vascular dementia and those with no history of hypertension and lower blood pressure levels are usually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

How are dementia and heart failure connected?

There are other ways that heart disease and dementia are connected, such as with heart failure. When your heart function is low, your brain doesn’t get enough blood. That can cause some cognitive dysfunction. However, it may not be severe enough to be considered dementia.

Can you prevent dementia with heart-healthy living?

You can slow the symptoms and avoid some forms of dementia by making your health a priorityDaily habits, such as working out, eating nutritious foods, avoiding smoking and managing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels can support your heart, brain and overall health. Conversely, obesity, a poor diet and a lack of exercise can lead to diabetes and high blood pressure, which can further lead to heart failure and vascular dementia later in life.

Although it is possible to treat the root causes of some cardiovascular and neurological diseases, some disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, cannot be prevented. Through genetic testing, your physician may find that you are likely to develop dementia, and if you are at high-risk, you can still work to lower your controllable risk factors and slow the onset and progression of the disease. 

The earlier in life you start prioritizing your overall health, the better the consequences. So, if there is a history of heart disease and dementia in your family, help your family members motivate each other to eat nutritiously, stay physically active and avoid common bad health habits. Your heart and your brain will thank you.

If you are concerned about your heart health, make an appointment with your physician to evaluate your symptoms and determine the best treatment option for you. Find a doctor near you. 

If you think you might be at risk of developing a heart condition, take a free heart health risk assessment today to better understand your heart disease risk and the best next steps you can take for your health. As the state’s largest cardiovascular network, we make it easy for our patients to connect to heart, lung and vascular specialists and access a full spectrum of treatments and services close to home. 

January 25, 2023
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