Vascular Risk Factors Linked with Poor Brain Health

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iStock.com/skynesher/MARHARYTA MARKO

People at risk for vascular disease (due to smoking, high blood pressure, or diabetes, for example) are also more likely than their peers to have decreased amounts of gray and white brain matter—two changes associated with cognitive decline.

This was the primary finding from a study of brain imaging data from about 9,700 individuals 44 to 79 years of age. Investigators collected data on participants’ health history and vascular risk factors (VRFs), which include waist-to-hip ratio, body mass index, blood glucose, elevated pulse pressure (the difference between systolic and diastolic readings), hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels—all of which have been tied to cerebrovascular problems.

Associations between higher levels of VRFs and poorer brain health were small but significant and seen in various types of brain tissue. Furthermore, the brain areas most affected were those linked with dementia and more complex cognitive functions. In addition, the association between VRFs and poorer brain health increased along with the number of VRFs.

According to the findings, which were published in 2019 in the European Heart Journal, the most consistent associations across all brain measures were smoking pack years (a one-pack year is 20 cigarettes a day for one year) and having hypertension or diabetes.

The message from the findings is clear: To lower your risk of cognitive decline, or to slow it down, make lifestyle changes—particularly quitting smoking—to decrease your number of VRFs.