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Heart disease and dementia are linked by many of the same clinically manageable risk factors, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis in the American Heart Association’s annual statistical report.

Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics — 2022 Update,” released Wednesday, provides the latest data on 27 cardiovascular-related health topics. This year, the authors also have dedicated a chapter to aspects of brain health that impact thinking and memory, decision-making and problem-solving. 

“The global rate of brain disease is quickly outpacing heart disease,” said Mitchell S.V. Elkind, M.D., the immediate past president of the AHA, in an accompanying statement. “The rate of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias rose more than twice as much in the past decade compared to the rate of deaths from heart disease, and that is something we must address.”

In addition, there is increasing acknowledgment among scientists that heart health and brain function are linked, wrote Connie Tsao, M.D., chair of the AHA’s statistics committee. But this awareness has not yet trickled down to patients, she said. Most will tell their doctors that they care deeply about preserving their brain health, but they don’t make the connection between cognitive function and the impact of healthy behaviors and lifestyle, she explained.

Image of Evan Thacker, Ph.D.; Credit: Brigham Young University
Evan Thacker, Ph.D.; Credit: Brigham Young University

This leaves an opening for clinicians to spread the word, the authors contend. Although there are genetic and societal issues that are beyond patients’ control, the report found that patients have a wealth of opportunities to lower their risk of life-limiting illness from dementia.

Cognitive decline and dementia are strongly related to the health of blood vessels in the brain and the brain’s blood supply, reported co-author Evan Thacker, Ph.D., of Brigham Young University in Utah. And there is consistent evidence that high blood pressure is a big contributor to dementia starting early in adulthood, for example. Diabetes also is linked to increased dementia risk in both men and women. 

In addition, obesity in midlife appears to play a role as well, with one report revealing that people with the condition have a 33% higher risk of developing dementia when compared to people with a normal body mass index, the authors noted.

Controlling these diseases and conditions, being physically active, eating a healthy diet and not smoking can support continued healthy brain function and may be preventive, they said. 

“You don’t get sick just because you get old,” Thacker said.

The report was published in the journal Circulation, and is released annually by the AHA in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies.