People with healthier heart structure and function appear to have better cognitive abilities, including increased capacity to solve logic problems and faster reaction times, a new study suggests.
It had previously been suggested that the brain is a target for damage from heart disease.
The risk factors leading to heart disease have also been associated with both vascular and Alzheimer’s dementia.
However, the mechanisms by which these associations occur are not well understood, and there had been no studies in large groups of people or those without disease.
The new research led by Queen Mary University of London and the Radcliffe Department of Medicine at University of Oxford examined links between heart health and cognitive function in over 32,000 UK Biobank participants.
The team assessed heart health using measures of anatomy and function obtained from MRI scans.
They analysed cognitive function using tests of fluid intelligence – the capacity to solve logic-based problems and reaction time.
Researchers found that in this large group of mostly healthy individuals, those with healthier heart structure and function performed significantly better in tests of cognitive ability.
Dr Zahra Raisi-Estabragh, BHF clinical research Training Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Heart disease and dementia are important and growing public health problems, particularly in ageing populations.
“We already knew that patients with heart disease were more likely to have dementia, and vice versa, but we’ve now shown that these links between heart and brain health are also present in healthy people.
“We demonstrated for the first time, in a very large group of healthy people, that individuals with healthier heart structure and function have better cognitive performance.
“With more research, these findings may help us to establish strategies for early prevention and reduce the burden of heart and brain disease in the future.”
To investigate underlying mechanisms for the observed relationships, researchers considered whether the links between heart and brain health may be related to shared risk factors for vascular disease, such as diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure and obesity.
They found that although these factors were important in determining both heart and brain health, they did not provide a complete explanation for the observed associations.
According to the scientists, this suggests an alternative mechanism may be important in mediating interactions across the heart and brain.
For instance, other studies indicate that proteins which are abnormally deposited in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease may also accumulate and cause disease in the heart muscle.
The researchers note that their study was observational, and it is not possible to make any definitive inferences about causality and it cannot be stated that heart disease causes impaired cognition, or vice versa.
Researchers received funding from the British Heart Foundation, European Regional Development Fund, Barts Charity, UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome, National Institute for Health Research and the Alzheimer’s Society.
The study is published in the European Heart Journal Cardiovascular Imaging.