Brain health is an important goal if you want to lead an active life as you age.
Currently, there is no definitive evidence about what can prevent Alzheimer's disease. But experts believe healthy behaviors that are good for your overall health can slow or delay the symptoms of some forms of dementia.
The National Institute on Aging defines “Brain health” as the ability to think, learn, concentrate, and remember over time. The U.S. population is becoming increasingly older, with the number of American ages 65 and older projected to be 95 million by 20601, making brain health a growing concern.
When there’s cognitive decline, a range of possible conditions may be occurring. On the lesser side of the spectrum is mild cognitive impairment, some of which is considered normal as people age.
Far more serious is dementia, a general term referring to diminished memory or other thinking skills that can severely impact quality of life. Symptoms vary and can sometimes be confused with those of other disorders. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
The health of your heart and blood vessels earlier in life are associated with Alzheimer’s and other dementia in later years.
According to Rebecca Gottesman, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, minimizing cardiovascular disease risk factors is a wise choice to try to prevent damage to the brain that can lead to dementia.
“It’s probably important to control these risk factors, and it’s probably important to control them at a younger age,” she said.
Try thinking of your brain as an asset to protect by addressing your overall heart fitness.
The heart-brain connection
Those with heart disease risks during middle age are more likely to have dementia when they are older, according to a study by Gottesman2 . The research followed the progress of more than 15,000 people in four U.S. communities beginning in 1987 when the participants were 45 to 64 years old.
Middle-aged study participants who had heart disease risks such as high blood pressure, smoking, or diabetes when the study began were more at risk for developing dementia later. The research found an especially high dementia risk in people who had diabetes in middle age.
In a separate study published last year, Gottesman looked at the presence of amyloid, or protein pieces that form plaque in the brain and are believed to be a main cause of Alzheimer’s.
The study showed people with heart risks such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and smoking in middle age were more likely to accumulate amyloid in the brain as they aged. The more risk factors present, the more likely amyloid was later detected.
The exact links between cardiovascular disease risk factors, dementia, and Alzheimer’s isn’t clear, Gottesman said. But research suggests middle-age heart and vascular health may affect brain changes that cause deterioration.
Why is middle age so crucial?
It may be that middle age is a “critical window” for risk factors affecting dementia onset, Gottesman said. Or, it’s possible high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight, and smoking play a big role even earlier in life, but the cumulative effects aren’t seen until middle age.
“Some of this damage can take decades to occur,” she said.
One way to keep a check on your cardiovascular disease risk factors is through seven steps identified by the American Heart Association that can make a major difference in your overall health.
The seven steps are managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, eating better, and quitting smoking.
The sooner a smoker quits, the better. Smokers are at higher risk for many chronic disorders, including atherosclerosis, or the buildup of fatty substances in the arteries. That buildup can lead to heart disease and stroke. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel carrying oxygen to the brain is blocked by a clot or bursts. That prevents part of the brain from getting the blood and oxygen it needs, and brain cells can die.
Costs of Alzheimer’s and dementia
With an Alzheimer’s or other dementia diagnosis comes costs for things like medical care, caregiving, and specialized living arrangements.
An estimated 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s today and that number is increasing, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By 2050, that number is projected to grow to 13.8 million.3
“Often these diseases place burdens on families, financial and otherwise,” Gottesman said, adding that “no one is fully prepared.”
The total direct cost of caring for people with Alzheimer’s was expected to reach $290 billion in the United States. That number could rise to $1.1 trillion by 2050.3
Because many forms of dementia take hold gradually, it allows time for discussions among family members about how to best cope with the illness in the future. Visit alz.org for guidance on how to prepare financially and legally.
In addition, a financial professional can help address specifics of individual money plans and caregiving costs when there is an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and as the illness progresses.
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always talk to your healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified healthcare professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911, or call for emergency medical help immediately.
1“Aging in the United States,” Population Reference Bureau, July 15, 2019
2 “Role of vascular disease in development of Alzheimer's disease,” ScienceDaily.com, accessed January 3, 20193“2019 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” Alzheimer’s Association, 2019