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The link between Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease

Posted by Constance Schein, RN
on December 11, 2019
Black and white image of a senior man holding a fake pink heart.

Increasingly, researchers are finding a correlation between that what is good for the heart, is also good for the brain.  Good blood flow to the grey matter is essential for the function and wellness of brain cells.  With each heartbeat, about 25% of the blood is delivered to the brain, bringing the necessary carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, hormones, and amino acids to provide your brain with the energy needed to remember information and to think clearly.

In recent years, there has been mounting evidence of the strong association between dementia and cardiovascular disease, particularly in terms of the heart condition’s tendency to starve the brain of blood. The brain is sensitive to changes in oxygen supply.  Since the primary function of the heart is to pump blood to the brain and throughout the circulatory system, those with heart health issues are generally at a higher risk for dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s.  Vascular damage due to buildup in the arteries can slow blood flow to the brain and over time, damage brain cells. Researchers have long suspected a cause-and-effect relationship with the heart and the risk factor of cardiovascular disease in the onset of Alzheimer’s.

High Blood Pressure and Brain Health

High blood pressure is one of the leading factors of heart disease and can wreak havoc by thickening your heart muscle.  The good news is a recent study by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommends keeping your blood pressure low and controlling hypertension to prevent dementia.   The bad news, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association in 2017 redefined high blood pressure as 130/80, which was previously 140/90.   According to statistics, approximately 46% of the adult population in the U.S. now qualify as having high blood pressure—that’s about 103 million Americans!  

Evidence is growing that controlling your blood pressure may not only reduce your risk of heart disease but stave off dementia.  A study in Neurology found that seniors with high blood pressure were more likely to have lesions on their brain caused by low blood supply.  And researchers found in these patients that they had more twisted strands of protein (referred to as tangles), which are a common symptom of Alzheimer’s.  Studies are finding preliminary results that aggressively reducing high blood pressure can decrease the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to dementia. This research also suggests that not only is treating high blood pressure safe in Alzheimer’s patients, but also may even increase blood supply to the brain.  

Tips for Better Heart Health

While age, genetics, and other risk factors play significant roles in the chances of developing Alzheimer’s, there are ways to minimize the risk. Heart disease comes in many forms, and sometimes the risk factors are out of one’s control. However, healthy living tips such as these can help get the heart in shape and lower your blood pressure:

  • Follow a balanced diet: As recommended by the Mayo Clinic, eating a balanced diet based around fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, low-fat proteins, and dairy can enhance heart health. Also, nix the processed foods and sugary drinks that are often high in sodium.   To reduce your blood pressure, diets such as the Mediterranean diet and DASH can help. 
  • Exercise regularly: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise three to four times per week to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. This can be anything that makes you burn calories, like walking, swimming, and stair-climbing.
  • Quit smoking: The AHA also notes that people who smoke are at a significantly higher risk of developing atherosclerosis, suffering stroke, and experiencing other cardiac events. The lungs begin to heal themselves the moment you stop smoking, so it’s never too late to quit the habit.
  • Reduce stress: Chronic stress often causes high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease, and it can push people to drink, smoke, and engage in other harmful behaviors for temporary relief. Instead, turn to natural, permanent solutions to stress, such as regular meditation, breathing exercises, and mental health services.
  • Check your blood pressure.  In addition to seeing your doctor, you can check your blood pressure at home with an automatic blood pressure cuff, or many pharmacies offer blood pressure readings.   Ask your doctor for recommendations.

With these healthy lifestyle suggestions and a greater understanding of the strong link between dementia and cardiovascular disease, you can begin to work toward improved heart health in an effort to slow this progressive disorder. Such information can also be applied to those who have started to show the signs of Alzheimer’s—a balanced diet, exercise, and other heart-healthy exercises may help slow and even help to reverse cognitive decline.

Profile image of Constance Schein, RN

Constance Schein, RN

Former Senior Vice President of Clinical and Health Services

Constance Schein is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of nursing experience in senior-focused healthcare organizations. She led Aegis Living’s major nursing and care initiatives and was responsible for managing and developing healthcare partnerships, technology, and wellness programs to improve resident care.

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