Heart problems in your 20s ‘may affect brain health decades later’

Heart health problems in someone’s twenties may affect brain health decades later, research has suggested.

A new study indicates having issues such as smoking, high cholesterol or a high body mass index (BMI) may be linked to problems with thinking and memory skills.

They may also be associated with the brain’s ability to properly regulate its blood flow, according to a preliminary study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 72nd annual meeting.

Study author Farzaneh Sorond, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said: “These results indicate that people need to pay close attention to their health even in their early twenties.

“We’ve known that vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and high blood glucose levels are linked to cerebrovascular damage and problems with thinking skills in older people, but this study shows that these factors may be linked decades earlier and injury may start much earlier.”

The study involved 189 people with an average age of 24 who were followed for 30 years as part of a larger study.

Participants were tested eight times over the course of the study and each time their cardiovascular health was assessed based on five factors – smoking, BMI, blood pressure, total cholesterol and fasting blood glucose level.

At their 30-year visit, the participants’ memory skills were tested, along with their brain’s ability to regulate its blood flow.

Researchers found those with better cardiovascular health at the beginning of the study were more likely to have higher scores on the thinking and memory skills tests than those with worse cardiovascular health.

On a test of attention skills where scores ranged from seven to 103, each point higher on the cardiovascular health score was associated with a 2.2 points higher score in attention skills.

The results were the same after researchers adjusted for factors that could affect thinking and memory skills, such as level of education.

Participants with better cardiovascular health at the start, and seven years into the study, were more likely to be able to maintain stable blood flow in the brain.

This means that during changes in blood pressure, the brain is able to maintain adequate blood flow.

Dr Sorond said that the study does not prove that better cardiovascular health results in better thinking and memory skills or better ability of the brain to regulate blood flow, it only shows an association.

A limitation of the study was that researchers did not have cerebral autoregulation – the body’s ability to maintain stable blood to the brain flow – measures at each visit.

Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “While this research looked at people’s memory thinking skills as they aged, it did not look at who went on to develop dementia.

“While we know midlife is a key time to act, this research suggests that looking after our heart health even earlier in life could hold long-term benefits for memory and thinking skills.

“The full findings from this research haven’t yet been published and only with the full results will we understand their relevance.”

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