Healthy heart, healthy mind: The link between cardiovascular health and dementia

Healthy heart, healthy mind: The link between cardiovascular health and dementia

February is Heart Month, so we sat down with our Scientific Advisor Dr. Larry Chambers to talk about the important link between heart and brain health.

Larry Chambers

Dr. Larry W. Chambers, Scientific Advisor, Alzheimer Society of Canada

Q: What does cardiovascular health have to do with dementia?

A: A lot! We know that stroke and cardiovascular disease are implicated in at least 50 percent of dementias, and 30 percent of people with a stroke go on to develop vascular dementia in the first year after the stroke.

Q: What is vascular dementia?

A: While the human brain comprises only about two and a half percent of the body’s weight, it receives almost 15 percent of the blood flow from the heart, and uses as much as a quarter of the body’s total oxygen consumption. Any reduction or interruption of this flow can cause strokes, which damage brain tissue and can cause or contribute to vascular dementia.

Q: What are the risk factors?

A: Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia as well as for stroke, but both stroke and dementia can occur at any age. Vascular disease is actually on the rise among people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, which increases their risk of vascular dementia. The good news is that many of the cardiovascular risk factors are modifiable, meaning they can be managed through lifestyle changes. And if that doesn’t work, effective medications are available to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and avoid blocked arteries in your brain.

Q: What can we do to prevent dementia?

A: Modifiable risk factors include:

  • Being overweight. The more you weigh, the more blood you need to supply oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. As the volume of blood circulated through your blood vessels increases, so does the pressure on your artery walls. Obesity also predisposes you to diabetes, another risk factor.
  • Using tobacco. Smoking damages the lining of your artery walls. This can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your blood pressure. Secondhand smoke can also increase your blood pressure.
  • Having too much salt in your diet. Too much salt can cause fluid retention, which leads to an increase in blood pressure.
  • Drinking too much alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can damage both your heart and your brain.
  • Not doing enough exercise. As well as missing out on the many benefits of exercise, people who are inactive tend to have higher heart rates. The higher your heart rate, the harder your heart must work with each contraction, and the stronger the force on your arteries.

For more information on prevention, visit our Brain health section.

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